Towards dusk our ship moves out into the harbour and we spend the night looking at the town and wishing we were in it.
Morning comes and we are just about to leave. A pretty little motorboat of the harbour master is chug-chug-chugging away over at the wharf. Officials enter it and just as they do, an Australian soldier runs hard across the wharf to climb aboard to get out to the ship; some waif who’s been astray in town all night. He gets one foot on the little craft when an official gives him a push and plonk, into the water he goes with a splash. A whistle blows on the motorboat and three sailors run up from along the wharf, yank the cove out of the water and march him off to the clink.
We roar at the motorboat, but can’t be heard as it comes straight for us. We arm ourselves with everything we can find and wait for the boat. Men rush and get armfuls of spuds from the bags of potatoes on deck. A born soldier jumps up and roars above the din, ‘Get quiet! No firing till he’s right alongside or you’ll spoil everything. Wait till I give the word.’
We wait. The motorboat comes up fast, its engine shuts off and it glides up gracefully with a big head of some sort, clad in a spotless white uniform, all braided, standing on it gracefully waving his cap and smiling at us.
Right under he comes, still smiling when the morning is split with a mighty ‘Give it to the floppin’ blankard!’, and five hundred spuds whistle through the air. Onto the dapper little boat they crash, smashing and breaking all over the men. The bloke in white stops a dozen hard clouts, and water from a hundred splashing spuds drenches him. He dives for the shelter of his glassed-in cabin and reaches it just as a ship’s bucket of slop-water, bucket and all, crashes through the cabin showering glass and broken woodwork everywhere.
Whilst the spuds fly in an unbroken stream, the boat gets its engine going, wheels and goes straight out, fifty yards from the ship’s side. Then it turns and glides in to the gangway that is out of range of the spud throwers. We see the drenched cove climb up the gangway as the C.O. of our ship, red with rage, descends to meet him. They salute and shake hands, not very friendly like.
A daylight fatigue is to go out along a big valley, past a collection of deep dugouts known as the Chalk Pits, and then swing left behind some artillery positions, finally coming to the back part of Delville Wood. Our job is to work a corner of the wood, salvaging any war material we can find. And we get a lot: picks, shovels, rifles, machine-guns with ready-filled belts, boxes of ammunition, old shells, miles of barbed wire that has never been unrolled, and odds and ends of every kind. It’s a rotten job wandering around amongst hundreds of dead men, whole and in pieces everywhere. And fat rats.
Just outside the wood we come to a well-constructed trench. In it there’s a British soldier to every yard, killed on the parapet in trying to hop-off. Twenty yards in front, a row of dead British soldiers in perfect line as if on parade, N.C.O.s in position, and a half-dozen paces ahead, their platoon officer, a rusty revolver in one outstretched hand, his whistle still clasped in the other, mowed down by machine-guns.
Further on we see another perfect line that met the same fate, and almost on top of the trench they charged, yet another line of British bodies. The three waves of the advance that surged on to break forever against an invisible barrier of machine-gun bullets. We inspect the enemy trench these men charged and their mates took. Its floor is covered with the bodies of grey-uniformed Fritz, many killed by hand grenades which are scattered everywhere from boxes and boxes opened, but not used.
There amongst them are two dead Tommies with enemy bayonets still through them, a rifle hanging by its bayonet from each body. One man has his two shrunken hands clasped around the bayonet that he has been trying to pull out of his chest. Cold steel has been the order here, cruel cold steel. Near a dugout entrance, a tall Fritz soldier hangs head down, pinned to the wooden frame of his dugout by a British bayonet that has been sent clean through him to the hilt into the hardwood behind. It has been unclipped from its rifle and left there with him impaled on it.
‘Get an eyeful of this,’ someone calls, and we see two men, a Fritz and a Tommy dead within a yard of each other; the Fritz has a British bayonet through his throat whilst the Tommy lies doubled over a Fritz bayonet whose point protrudes from his back.
In a wide part of the trench we find a very big Tommy sergeant. Across him are sprawled two Fritz and their bayonets are driven through his body. No less than seven Fritz lie nearby with their necks horribly gashed, whilst one has been opened from his shoulder halfway down his chest. Between the sergeant and the side of the trench is an enemy officer whose steel helmet, head and face are cleft by a Fritz trench-spade, the blade of which is still in the opened head, whilst the broken handle lies near the British sergeant.
‘What do you think of that? The Tommy sergeant, using a Fritz spade, chopped six Fritz necks nearly off, slit another’s chest open, and then smashed the spade when he cleaned the officer up with it.’
‘Yes, and two Fritz got him with their bayonets when the spade broke.’
‘And his own men got the two who bayoneted him.’
‘These Tommies will do me.’
It was up at Noreuil that Longun met a chap he knew, a man of the 13th who was walking out wounded. Longun went to shake hands, but the cove didn’t offer his hand; he kept it, and the other one too, across his abdomen, up under his singlet. Longun wanted to know why and said so.
‘What the devil’s the matter with you?’
The man just grinned and said, ‘Sorry I can’t shake hands, but if I take my hand away my guts’ll fall in the dirt.’ And the men looked and found the fellow’s belly had been slit clean across by a bullet and he had his fingers clasped over his protruding bowels to keep them in. That man wouldn’t be carried out, but walked out and told us that if we had any stretchers to spare to keep them for the badly wounded men as he was quite okay.
Then we came across an old man in a broken-down trench who had a bullet through each knee and a big hole in his hand from a Fritz bomb. He was nursing a spade and crying like a spoilt kid. We told him, ‘You’re set now, mate. We’ll soon get you back,’ but the old beggar kept on crying and repeating, ‘There were seven of ’em, and three ran away.’ And every time he’d say ‘and three ran away’ he’d fairly howl from temper. He wouldn’t get on the stretcher as he reckoned his mate was round the trench with a bayonet still in his leg and wanted us to get him first.
A Fritz officer in spotless uniform, and three dirty, ragged Fritz stand with hands up near a dugout.
‘Take these men back,’ the sergeant tells me.
I wave my bayonet and the three Fritz move towards me, but the officer remains stationary. He looks at us haughtily.
‘Officer surrender to officer. Bring officer.’
Longun jumps up behind him and laughs gleefully.
‘Want an officer, do you? Here’s an officer. Captain bayonet.’
And with a savage jab his ready bayonet is through the seat of the officer’s pants. The officer doesn’t wait any longer, but screams as he jumps about a metre in the air and runs towards his three men yelling like a pup with a broken tail. I hurry the prisoners along and as I make off, Longun’s laughter floats after me.
‘Just prod him a bit if he jibs on you.’
The officer doesn’t wait to be prodded, but hurries on holding his hands across his injured part, and I see the blood working through his shaking fingers.
I get them back to our old position and tell an officer how our men are going. I tell him the Fritz officer speaks English. He questions him, but the man won’t answer his questions. The Fritz officer goes off a packet about what Longun did, but somehow fails to take in our officer’s meaning when he politely assures him that he is jolly lucky. The flash joker rubs his injured part very gingerly and is taken away wondering where his luck comes in.
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