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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 5, continued

I prepared myself for my 'trial' by drawing a contour sketch map of the area and cut the stitches holding my stripes, leaving them hanging on a couple of threads. I duly appeared before the CO and the officer made his report. When the CO asked me if had anything to say I said I would like to submit a written report and sketch and when I handed them to him the CO read my report, looked at the sketch map and then said "Seven days No. 1 field punishment." When the RSM came striding, clasp knife in hand, to 'strip' me, I let him get within about two yards of me and then I snatched off my stripes and threw them on the ground.

I was escorted to the guard room and handed over to the sergeant in charge to do my seven days punishment. No. 1 field punishment entailed doing hard labour and such jobs as filling in and digging latrines and other nasty jobs. Also, part of the punishment consisted of being tied spread-eagle fashion for an hour in the morning and evening to the wheels of a limber, so that the whole battalion could see us as they marched to and from their day's work. As for the 'disgrace', we got nothing but sympathy and cheering words from the lads as they marched by.

The 'Provost Sergeant' at that time held the rank of Company Sergeant Major. He was an old regular, a very fine type. He could be very tough in a quiet way and could handle the 'bad lads' without raising his voice. He had known me for sometime as he was once my platoon sergeant and he asked me to tell him about the episode which brought me a prisoner under his charge. I gave him the story and he said "Don't tell anybody I said so, but that officer's a bloody dud! When I tie you up I shall leave the ropes slack so that you can move but don't let on to the others, they deserve their punishment!"

After being tied for an hour the sergeant detailed the prisoners to various tasks, leaving me to the last and when it came to my turn he said "Let me see what horrible job I can find for you, I know! You will report to the cook-house each day and help the cooks!"

So my No. 1 field punishment was not so bad after all. The old Sergeant cook must have been tipped off by the provost sergeant for he gave me an easy time collecting the firewood and such like chores. I fed better that week than I ever fed before in the army. During that seven days I puzzled my brain to find a way of getting away from the officer I now detested. On being discharged from the guard room I reported back to my platoon sergeant who told me to report to the CO straight away. Making my way to HQ I reported to the Adjutant that I had to see the CO. "Oh! Yes," he said, "just wait and I'll see if he can see you now." He seemed quite pleasant towards me and returning in a few minutes he told me to go right in.

I found the CO in his tent, seated at a desk, and clicking my heels to attention and saluting smartly, I said "My platoon sergeant told me to report to you Sir."

"That's right Corporal, stand easy'."

"It's Private Williams now Sir," I replied.

"We shall see about that," replied the CO. Then, opening a drawer he took out my report and sketch map, spreading out the map on his desk. "Where did you learn to draw contours like this?"

"I suppose I must have learned it at school Sir."

"Why did you make this map Williams?"

"To show you that there was a ruddy great hill between my post and where the general got through."

"Would you like to do more of this kind of thing?"

"Yes Sir, I think I would."

"Right Williams. There is a special course being run for officers at Divisional HQ. You must put up your stripe again as I can't send a private soldier on the course. In the meantime I am going to transfer you to the scout platoon, so report to the Scout Officer at once."

I was delighted. It meant that I had got away from 'plumb mouth'. I reported to the Scout Lieutenant who was a very popular officer. I told him the CO wished me to become a scout. He asked me a few questions and then "Are you a good shot?"

I replied "Fair Sir."

"Could you hit a pig at two hundred yards?"

"If you will go and stand by that tree Sir, I'll have a go!"

"Alright Williams," he said smiling, "I think you'll do, move your things to HQ and join the scouts there."

My move meant being separated from Bill once more but he understood how I felt and I promised to do my best to got him also into the scout platoon.

A few days later I set out with the Adjutant and proceeded to Divisional HQ where I spent two weeks on the map drawing course and found I was more than able to hold my own with the officers there. I learned a lot from the colonel who was instructing us, including the use of a prismatic compass and protractor for making rough surveys. The course also included panoramic sketching and I quite enjoyed this as I had always been able to draw quite well. On returning to my battalion I was given the job, two or three times a week, of passing on to a class of officers what I had learned on the course. It was most unusual for a young NCO to be instructing officers but they were very keen to get to know all I could tell them and they treated me very well indeed and gave me presents of cigarettes, tins of 'John Cotton' tobacco and loaned me books and so on. The fact that the CO often came and sat in on the classes may have had something to do with their keenness.

Now the battalion had completed their road-making they moved on. They had been issued with bivouacs, so pitching and striking camp took only a few minutes.

On the move the scouts now led the way, the scout officer and I moving along the actual route, while the rest of the platoon split up into two's at intervals covering both flanks. Then came the thunder and soon the rain poured down in torrents. We were soaked to the skin in a few minutes by the solid sheet of rain so we took off all our clothes and put them under a boulder and stood completely naked in the storm. The lightening seemed to be all around us in great purple flashes and the thunder was deafening. We were scared to death whilst it lasted, none of us ever having experienced anything like it before. I had never been nervous of thunder storms at home but this was something different. The worst storm I'd seen at home was like a damp squib compared with that hill top front seat! By the time the storm was over it was getting dark and we were very glad to see a squad of men and an NCO coming to relieve us for the night. We trudged slowly down the hill and when we came in sight of the camp there was a hive of activity as the men worked frantically with entrenching tools and spades, digging little trenches round their bivouacs to keep out the water which was now rushing down the hillside and turning the previously dry nullah into a rushing torrent.

Map showing relative positions of Salonica and Serres (Greece) Dorian and Belasica (Serbia) and Struma (Bulgaria)

I shared a bivvy that night with a very tall Lancashire lad who went by the name of 'Lanky Lancs'. He was about six foot two inches tall, thin as a lath, and with a Lancashire accent you could cut with a knife, spoken in a very deep bass voice. He was a humorist with a dead-pan face and as we ate our evening meal of stew and tea, he said, quite seriously "I reckon it was a mistake to take off all our clothes in that storm, we could have been struck with lightening in some of our best places!"

Our battalion did not stay long in this camp and as we were now within a day's march of the Struma Plain we left the road-building to other units while we pushed forward to the foot hills where we were to construct a trench line before moving forward onto the Plain. Camp was made at the foot of a range of high hills and we scouts went forward to take up look-out posts at the summit. I halted my little party below the crest of our particular peak and scouted forward to see what lay on the other side.

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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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.

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.

Limber.

A detachable two-wheeled vehicle containing ammunition, preceding the gun carriage and forming with it part of a field gun unit.

[Possibly French limonière]

Provost Sergeant.

In the British Army a Provost Sergeant is the non-commissioned officer in charge of the regimental police and is the senior law enforcement officer in each regiment or battalion. The Provost Sergeant is a member of the regiment or corps that he serves in and not a member of the Royal Military Police. While a Provost Sergeant holds the military rank of Sergeant, the Provost Sergeant title is a position and not a formal rank itself.

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.

Nullah.

A ravine or gully, especially in southern Asia.
[Hindi nl, rivulet (probably of Dravidian origin)]

Bivvy (bivouac).

A makeshift camp or camping place; the making of or staying in this.

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