A brilliant account of life and death in the trenches
All military memoirs are valuable because they offer an authentic view of the events they describe. Some works transcend simple records to become fine works of literary craftsmanship. Some, and this book is one of them, possess the ability to transport the reader—often in unsparing detail—to the wartime world the author experienced. Though this book has an uninspiring title, it has become highly regarded as a first-hand account of the brutal fighting on the Western Front in the last year of the war. The author was a Royal Engineer officer, engaged in bridging and railway projects, but he and his men were also on occasions engaged in a hand-to-hand battle with the enemy in the trenches—which is described in visceral detail within these pages. This Leonaur edition contains maps and images not present in the original edition.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Twice we got lost in the woods and finally I had to give up all hope of finding the lake track. We returned the long way, but even so the tracks were knee-deep and I could feel the water trickling in over the tops of my field boots. Sometimes it would be such a relief if only one could cry!
The men had a drop of rum when we got back, and it was about 4 a.m. when I crawled into my flea bag. A family of beetles played, “Come and sit on my chair” across my toes, and an old brown rat wanted to keep me company. I turned him out three times, but the poor devil was so persistent and so pathetic that finally I let him stop. Immediately I fell asleep he came and stroked my hair in gratitude and I, misunderstanding his intentions, turned him out for good and all.
But have you ever tried to sleep in your soaking wet clothes, with your head two feet under a sheet of corrugated iron on which it is raining hard? I tried, but the rain and the beetles were against me. I got up, and the morning and the evening were the first day.
Sept. 10. Still raining; and we spent another awful night in the outpost line. Our own 18-pounders were shooting so short that some of the shells were actually falling behind us and once we had to lie on the Bosche side of the parapet to get cover from them. The weather is our most dangerous foe now, and all wiring etc. is stopped until we can make some sort of protection for the line troops. They are going down like flies, there isn’t a dug-out worth the name in the whole sector, and the water, already a foot deep in the best posts, is increasing hourly.
Sept.11. Another terrible night—it is still raining and we have been soaked through now for four days and nights. Most of the companies are down to half strength and trench-foot is very prevalent—it is as much as most of the men can do to carry two sheets of iron per night for their own protection. Our own billets are flooded now and we are knee-deep in mud everywhere—the horses feel it more than we do and I have had to send them back. We had to shift their position every three or four hours to prevent them sinking, and it has been so bitterly cold—there is no protection from this biting wind as it howls and shrieks across the swamps and mud fields.
But one thinks of the line, for it is always the line, poor devils, who get it worst—they could tell Dante many things.
There are men up there who have not been under a shelter of any description during a week of almost continuous rain—they have forgotten what it is to feel dry, and their minds are dull and stupid with the cold and misery of it all—they have slept fitfully, wakening under the necessity of shifting their position to avoid the mud or when an unusually fierce downpour has stung their faces—and during the whole of this time no warm food or drink has passed their lips. Small wonder that they die—with gratitude.
Sept. 12. It is two feet deep on our best main road, and we had a wild fight last night to get the necessary material up for the shelters—an unlucky shell killed two men, wounded three, and knocked out two mules. In spite of this we did a good night’s work and erected fourteen shelters. The men seem to realise how much depends on them, and I have seldom seen them work so well.
Sept. 13. Heavy shelling on roads and tracks disorganised all parties and interfered with work. I was hit in the middle of the back with a large fragment which bruised me badly.
If I stumbled and fell once last night, I fell twenty times—we use three-quarters of our strength in fighting through the mud and the remaining quarter in actual work. We were so tired last night that I tried the short way back again through the woods. Once we stumbled on a colony of rats, feeding on the sodden corpse of a Frenchman. I shuddered involuntarily as they scattered away, screaming, and then turned to watch us with beady, malevolent eyes.
The last time I was home on leave I remember my mother asked me why the trench rats were so big. I nearly told her, but then it occurred to me that I might be “missing” myself and the thought would have driven her mad—so I said it was because of the food we used to throw over the top. God help the mothers who really know these things.
Derry crocked up again yesterday and went to hospital.
Sept. 14. It is still raining and we are still mud-slinging—would that I had the time to describe it all.
My back was very sore today and I could hardly raise my right arm on account of the smack I received last night.
The morale of the men is very low again, but fortunately the weather prevents the Huns from doing anything but shell us.