Wednesday, 3 August 2016
Part V of ‘With Canadians from the Front’
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, February 1917.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2016.
He was a woeful looking figure when I saw him first—thin, sickly, stoop-shouldered, with a light growth of fair hair in constant rebellion. His white, wan face carried a story I longed to hear. As the kind treatment of the convalescent home began to have its effect, he brightened to its influence, his cheeks began to fill, his colour to return, and the misery in his eyes passed into a deceiving innocence that covered depths of mischief. But always the mere mention of his life in the trenches drove him back to sober thoughtfulness.
He never should have been there at all. Only the sheer grit of him had kept him from the hospital many a time. And when he left us once more for the front there was grit in his last smile. He had not learned to look forward to the bully beef and mud with any greater pleasure; but he knew what was expected of him, and his friends—the very friends who had always taken advantage of his mild ways—would tell you that he had never been found wanting in that.
A Canadian to the tips, he was not born in Canada. Indeed, even when I knew him, he spoke English imperfectly. He was born in France. Perhaps that accounted in part for his willingness to face the fight again as soon as the doctors thought he could, when many a bigger, better lad was adding a touch of limp or cough or a twist of pain when the examining doctor came.
From what level of French society he came is immaterial. His father died when he was very young, and his step-father was cruel to him. At thirteen he ran away. He had heard of Canada even at that age, and it sounded good to him. But the French boats would not take him without his parents’ consent; so he shipped on a Norwegian.
His story of the trip across is a series of brutality worthy of the Germans. His mild manners, I suppose it was, and his immature age made him a butt for the cruel sailors. He was kicked and cuffed. A favourite pastime of the crew was to force him to climb the mast when it was caked with frozen spray; and at every slip they kicked him up again. And then he came to Canada, undergrown, ill-nourished, his constitution undermined.
Landing first in the Maritime Provinces, without a word of English at his command, he nevertheless found work. From job to job he drifted into the lumber woods. And there he was, where the harshest conditions of life demand the strongest, hardiest frames, when the war broke out.
One would think that such a career would have hardened him to anything the trenches had to offer. Lads from homes of luxury had stood it, most of them with less grumble than comes from those who had always existed beneath the knocks of life. But the little French lad’s constitution had been weakened when he was too young to profit physically from the buffets of his experience. The new kind of exposure told on him from the first. He did not drink, and some of his mates have told me what a pitiful sight he was in the cold, wet dawn, shiveringly refusing his grog, while everyone else was clamouring for the touch of liquid fire that opened each day through the cold season.
But to a man they repudiated the thought that the boy was any the worse for it in the long run, certainly not in morale. “Whenever there was any particularly dirty job on, V. was the first to volunteer,” they said. “He never funked. He was on listening-post longer and oftener than anyone else in the company. Grit clear through!” And his illness came to him when his perils seemed to be over for the time. “I thought I was going to Heaven,” he breathed to me, in that sentimental way of his, “when I got my first leave.” He nearly did. In England but a day or two, he developed pneumonia—as many another has done. That was how I met him.
Always back in his eyes was a sadness, as of looking at pictures he did not like to talk about. But when he did talk I could see a little of what he felt; he described it to me with the simple clarity of a mind that does not make a habit of speaking all it thinks.
It was his listening-post duties of which he was always thinking—those lonesome, terrible, perilous hours of which he had spent more than his share out before the front lines. “Often I used to wish a bomb would fall beside me,” he confided, “and get me out of it. But they never would. Fellows all about me were killed, boys who didn’t want to die, but I always escaped. From November when I went in I was never dry. Two or three times I found dry places to sleep, and it was wonderful.” And never a hint that his duties had been volunteered, that he had offered to go out and lie in the mud before the German trenches while his comrades held back.
V.’s battalion had a particularly bad spot in the line. The trenches were shallow; to go deeper was but to wallow in deeper water. The German line was out across a brutal No Man’s Land where water lay in every depression. Men were drowned there. The trenches were bad; the listening-post was inhuman. And the shivering lad returning from before the German fire had no warm dugout to look forward to. He was never dry.
Listening-post duty is the local spying system of the front lines. Every night No Man’s Land is inhabited by two parties, the patrol squads and the listening-posts. The latter usually go in pairs, their duty to listen to the Germans in their trenches if they can approach close enough, to waylay enemy patrols, to uncover working parties. They are the spies, the doorkeepers, the watch-dogs, and altogether the uncomfortable ones of the company. They are selected for the things that make a good soldier—steadiness of nerve, intelligence, discrimination, knowledge of German quick-wittedness, and endurance. Which does not imply that all on listening-post possess these traits. If they do they are the more valuable.
After dark they crawl out over the parapet, often alone, conscious that their return is uncertain, aware that ahead of them stretches an interminable two hours of danger and discomfort. As close as they can get to the German trenches is their goal—through the German wire barricades if possible. And there they lie motionless, silent, low as the ground will let them, in water and mud. The deepest depression, where the mud and water await them, is their safest resting-place. To be against the skyline is certain exposure. And all the time the nervous German is sending up star-shells in search for such as he. He has orders not to shoot—as have all in No Man’s Land at night—save as a last extremity. Three bombs he carries for protection if pressed, and a password for his own patrol partlies who are prowling about. In his hand may be the end of a string attached to a bell in the trench he has left, and by it he can say all he need say in a hurry.
For the rest he trusts to Providence and to the luck of the soldier. If the luck of the soldier is according to his deserts I know there is good fortune in store for such as V.
The patrol party is the listening-post in action. It combines the spying of the other with the beat of the policeman and the destructiveness of the soldier. Those of the regular patrol party are relieved of fatigue duty, but into the hours of darkness they cram thrills and danger enough at times to earn them more relief that they get.
Perhaps you, in your Morris chair to-night, can picture the weird work of the patrol in No Man’s Land. Out there where not a finger dare show in daylight, where any careless bullet from either side may find its billet in him, where every second is a possible encounter with a thousand lurking dangers he cannot see, he prowls about in search of anything of value. He may crawl through the barb-wire before the German trenches and lie listening to the conversation of an enemy who fancies himself secure. He may run suddenly into a dark form, or a score of them, and have to hold his hand until he knows them as friend or foe. If friend there is the password. If foe—well, some quick thinking is necessary first of all. He must not reveal his location to either trench by bullet or bomb, except as a last resort. The knife or the bayonet are the safest weapons; failing these, bombs. The scene of a couple of patrol parties throwing bombs indiscriminatingly in the darkness contains all the mystery and excitement and uncertainty of a detective story with the possible solution the death of all concerned. When the patrol is out the trenches they left have orders not to fire towards the Germans; a friend is as vulnerable to a rifle bullet as a foe.
And yet the boys like it when there is no other excitement. There is action in it, the chance of getting even. There is about it that uncertainty that gives gambling its lure—and then there may be a V. C. To poke around in the darkness with the thrills running down your spine, uncertain what is ahead of you, whether a German, a clamorous machine-gun bullet, a sudden jab from a bayonet, or a six-foot hole filled with water, is more exciting than “playing the ponies” or dodging the police for a crap game. It even has its points over being caught in the open when the fog rises and shows you up to a thousand or two of snipers whose only interest in life is your death.
A patrol party usually consists of an officer, a sergeant, and six men, and a connection may be retained with the trenches by means of a bell at each end of the platoon.
Connection between the various parts of the army is vital. That is so obvious that its development has been affected less than any other department by the exigencies of this novel war. Communication between General Staff and army, between army and division, between division and brigade, between brigade and battalion, between battalion and company, between company and platoon, and even between scores of individuals off in hiding by themselves and their officers. And the guns must never lose touch with the infantry.
There is a system that keeps all these units together, and this war has culled out the useless details and leaned on those which have been found not wanting. The backbone of connection is the telephone. There are telephones everywhere on the field of battle, sometimes from far before the front line right back to General Joffre. Every tree may have its telephone, every shell hole, every dug-out; and every fence skeleton and hedge is certain to be the trail of wires that direct the conflict.
Wire layers and repairers are a part of every branch of the service, and their work is never complete. But the telephone is not always vocal. Back of battalion headquarters it may be a buzzer, and sometimes in front if the German lines are not too close. The buzzer can be tapped by the enemy more easily. The vocal telephone, when within some hundreds of yards of the enemy, is on metallic circuit for the purpose of retaining its secrets. And at the front end of the wire is the signaller.
Of course you have watched with more than ordinary interest the drilling in Canada of the signaller before he is sent overseas. You have seen a group of them, each with a pair of flags, wig-wagging to another group across a field. And you have been awed by the swiftness of gesticulation and the certainty of reply. It is there for you to see. So it would be for the enemy if it were in use where there is one. .
The disillusioning feature of it is that these spectacular evolutions are nothing more than a course of calisthenics, so far as their usefulness to the present-day line of battle is concerned. The signaller is a signaller no longer. His flags are probably somewhere back in England with the rest of the junk of war waste. In the first place battles don’t wait now for an officer in one field to wig-wag to an officer in another field that his guns are cutting up his friends instead of his enemies, or that the enemy is about to come over. In the second place signallers are not immortal—not in this life, and the supply would run out before a single flag had been raised. The enemy is not the least bit considerate when it comes to passing along messages by anticipated methods.
I am not certain of it offhand, but I should say that not a flag has waved in battle since 1914. It is a preparatory exercise for the consumption of open-mouthed civilians, and to convince those who enlist for the signal corps that they are signallers.
And the signallers have profited by it as well as the army. There is no straining of eyes, no nervous doubt, no mistake, no exposure. The signaller lies under cover taking the orders of his officer and transmitting them to their destination. And up at the front he has to do his own repairing of wires.
If anyone should guess at the miles of telephone wire that have been used in this war he would probably go mad with the immensity of it. At first the wire was a nice rubbered affair that cost so much per inch and when required elsewhere was taken up in order to limit the cost of the British army to $25,000,000 a day—as it is at the time of writing. Then common sense awoke. It struck someone that service was the thing, not polish; that a wire that could lie ignored when of no further use, at the saving of time and human life, was what this war needed. So they produced an enamelled wire that worked as well without costing enough to make it worth while to send a gang of men to remove it. Now there must be thousands of miles of cheap wire that has served its purpose, kicking about France for peace to collect and sell as souvenirs. It is everywhere over the ground, and everywhere it has been smashed to powder by a thousand guns.
Of course there is other wire. The nicely insulated variety is still used in the rear and removed with the removal of the units it feeds. Armoured cable is still in use for permanent posts and for headquarters. But where a flag used to deliver a message from the open on clear days in a couple of minutes, a bit of flimsy wire staked to the ground or run through a hedge transmits the same message more surely in a second. And seconds count.
There are times when the wires fail—when there is not time for their laying, when movement is too swift to be followed by the wire gang, when the bursting shells make dust of formal communication. It is then man comes into his own—with all the tight places and impenetrable barriers into which the carrying of despatches throws him.
Orders are carried under these conditions by three distinct bodies of orderlies. Back in comparative safety, although still within range of the guns and sometimes under excitement, the despatch riders whizz from headquarters to headquarters on motor-cycles. With the distances they have to cover and the large urgency of their reports, speed is important. Between the smaller units behind the lines bicycle orderlies do the work, their course facilitated by the lightness and mobility of their machines.
But while there is a certain glamour thrown on the work of the despatch riders, largely because they are the snobs of the despatch service and roar and rave and rattle about from point to point on mounts whose effectiveness seems to be based upon the noise they make and the speed they can maintain, there is a third branch of the service that performs the really dangerous, unsung work up at the front where the fury of the fight makes wire too mortal, where advance of small units has separated them from their companions, where the extreme pressure of the enemy makes immediate reinforcements and supplies necessary to the very life of the struggling men. Those who figure there are the battalion runners.
Were the services of the battalion runners narrated in full there would be books of bravery and sacrifice, of grim perseverance and reckless daring that would pretty nearly discount any other branch of the service. But because these young fellows work at sudden emergency, because they are too busy to demand their dues from the press, because they are few in number and small of size and come into contact only with a few officers, they pursue their imperilled path without a publicity agent.
I have talked to despatch riders whose many months of active service has earned nothing more serious for them than a spill at sixty miles an hour or thereabouts, or a hundred yard acquaintance with a “coal-box.” But the despatch rider—like certain of the Flying Oorp before they have heard the sound of a gun—is primed with a luridness of description that savours of the exhaust of their motorcycles while carrying perhaps nothing more momentous than an invitation to a brother officer to come over and make up a table.
I have also talked with battalion runners who, having not the capacity for description, treat the most hair-raising experiences as the details of an ordinary day’s work. In fact I have never yet drawn a story from a battalion runner except by the exercise of all my “pumping” ability. They are modest boys, trained in a silent, modest school, and their very isolation from the usual trench life deprives them of that ready exchange where the ordinary soldier is crammed with stock experiences.
Battalion runners seem to be selected for their smallness of size, their quickness of foot, their stubborness and determination, and their ability to go on to the end without being swerved aside by the incidents about them. The latter is the main qualification.. The battalion runner must close his eyes and ears to everything but his destination. His work is not to fight except against the obstacles in his path; and nothing but death must stop him.
Battalion runners are the connecting links between units that have become separated. They must keep these units in touch, whether across the very mouths of German rifles or backward to the sources of relief and supply. Their orders are simply to get there, using every facility available. Usually they are on foot, sneaking along through shattered trenches, crawling from shell hole to shell hole, skirting danger by the merest hair’s breadth to save time—running, creeping, lying down until danger is past, in silence and alone looking only to their own resources for the fulfilment of their purpose.
There are stories in my mind of the suffering and grim endurance and persistence of these despatch-bearers, that are almost monotonous in their lack of lurid detail. But anyone with some conception of conditions among the trenches may fill in without difficulty. I have heard of battalion runners on their way through enemy lines to reach a unit beyond, who were forced to worm along on hands and knees for miles and hours, always within touch of the foe. One runner hid for a week in the remains of a small woods, sneaking out at night to sustain himself on the pickings from the dead bodies that lay about. Germans by the hundreds were around him. But he delivered his message at the end—days after it was of any value. Often in their silent passage they meet the enemy on equally silent errands, and fight or run as the occasion or opportunity demands.
And such service is not rendered unscathed. They lie down and die out there where none knows what has happened, their message undelivered and their devotion unrewarded—and they are only casualties. The one thought in their minds is to last out to the moment when they can place the message in the hands they seek. Wounded to death they stagger on, and sink to final rest with the last words of the message on their lips. Even they hide their wounds that they might bear back the reply awaited.
A brave, tireless, defiant, silently suffering band of devoted soldiers, these runners who tempt to their own bodies the wounds they are trying to save their comrades. A modest group whose reward is in duty performed, not in the applause of the casual public. Some day their historian will earn them their deserts.
The next article of this series is entitled “The Non-Combatants”, which describes the work of the vast number of men in the army who never see the firing-line.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.