The routine of life in the trenches dominated the infantry soldier’s experience of the First World War on the Western Front. Great battles, as at Verdun and on the Somme in 1916, were terrifying and deadly interludes, killing soldiers in tens of thousands. The greater part of an infantry regiment’s time, however, was spent in trench garrison duty, usually divided into blocks of front-line service, rest behind the lines, return to the support or reserve lines immediately behind the front and then the relief of a sister regiment in the front trenches again. The cycle, in the British army, usually lasted twelve days.
Sidney Rogerson, a company commander in a battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, used the twelve-day cycle to describe his unit’s ordeal in and behind the trenches of the Somme battlefield in the winter of 1916. The British army had attacked the German lines on the Somme on 1 July 1916. Strongly prepared during eighteen months of quiescence on that sector, the German trenches proved almost impenetrable. Some 20,000 British soldiers were killed on 1 July, more than 40,000 wounded or missing. In the four months that followed, the British succeeded, in a sequence of step-by-step attacks, in forcing the Germans back. At the onset of winter in November, however, the German line still held. The battlefield itself, by a process of attack and counter-attack, had become a wilderness of broken barbed wire, ruined dugouts, shell holes, swamp and trench dead-ends. The trench system was a maze, which the occupiers struggled to ‘improve’ by digging and draining, but which easily swallowed up the individual who lost his way in any attempt to find a route from one place to another. Connection between the front line and the rear lay through ‘communication trenches’. So battered and shapeless did they become under shell fire, however, that it was often quicker, though inevitably more dangerous, for those leaving the front line to travel above ground, at the risk again of becoming lost in a landscape without landmarks.
Sidney Rogerson’s account of leaving his trench sector at the end of his regiment’s spell of front-line duty vividly conveys what he calls ‘the nghtmare’ of a trench relief — personal disorientation, misunderstanding between brother officers, the overwhelming fatigue of the men and their leaders, the euphoric sense of escape from all-encompassing danger when the safe area behind the lines was reached. It also conveys the arbitrary and haphazard nature of any military operation — the menace of ‘friendly fire’, when British artillery killed British soldiers, the hazards of the battle zone itself, ever threatening to engulf and drown the unwary in swamped shell holes or waterlogged trenches. Sidney Rogerson is one of the great soldier-writers of the First World War.
Accountof being relieved in the line, November 1916, Somme
So that last day in the line passed under its mantle of fog. The short winter daylight passed in uneasy silence. The men slept; took their turn at a meaningless spell of duty at the sentry-posts, peering stupidly into the mist; and wrote letters or ‘Whizz-Bangs’ [pre-printed] cards] to be posted home when we got out — ‘I am well,’ ‘I am in hospital,’ etc. ‘Cross out the words which do not apply.’
Robbed of their eyes in the air [poor weather kept spotter aircraft and balloons from operating effectively], even the heavy guns were still, but one of the few shells which our field guns fired, burst short in the very mouth of A Company’s sap, killing two men.
The piece of news sent me off post-haste to Fall Trench to investigate. Cropper was in the sap when I arrived. The shell that had done the damage had come from directly in rear, otherwise it could not have entered the trench as it had done. It had burst plumb in the middle of the sap-way, killing the two men instantaneously but without mutilating them much. There was little room for doubt that it was one of our own shells, and that was removed when, after a few seconds poking about in the smoke-blackened soil, we found the nosecap. It was a British eighteen-pounder. It was only natural to curse the gunners, the rotten American ammunition, the worn guns, the inefficiency of the intelligence people who did not know where their own bloody infantry were, the staff, and every one else whom we could think of for blotting out two good Yorkshire soldiers. But, living as we were in scoops and burrows which not only were not shown on any map, but which we ourselves were frantically anxious should be difficult to detect by direct observation, we were as much at the mercy of our own as of the enemy gunners. And when we had blown off our indignation, we had to admit that the marvel was that such accidents did not happen more often. Anyway, there was nothing to be done. I promised Cropper I would report to Battalion Headquarters so that they could pass the information on to our divisional artillery. Cropper undertook to see that the victims were buried as soon as night fell, so that we might leave everything shipshape for the Worcesters.
From A Company’s sap to that of B Company was only a few yards along Fall Trench, and my visit took the post there, consisting of a young lance-corporal and two men, by surprise. The corporal had not only allowed his men to take off their equipment, but was minus his own, while there was a general atmosphere of slackness. It was strictly against orders to remove any essential equipment while in the trenches, and the offence naturally became still more heinous in men on what was virtually outpost duty. Still, in view of the youth of the NCO and his good record, I was prepared to let him off this time with a good dressing-down, had he not shown a kind of familiar resentment that I should have taken exception to his indiscipline. This hint of familiarity touched me on a delicate spot. It had always seemed absurd to me to try and adhere rigidly to the conventional formalities of discipline in the trenches where officers lived cheek by jowl with their men, shared the same dangers, the same dug-outs, and sometimes the same mess-tins. Quite apart from the absurdity, I believed, and nothing I ever saw subsequently shook me in the belief, that the way to get the best out of the British soldier was for an officer to show that he was the friend of his men, and to treat them as friends. This naturally involved a relaxation of pre-war codes of behaviour, but it did not mean that an officer should rub shoulders with his men at every opportunity, or allow them to become familiar with him. It meant rather that he should step down from the pedestal on which his rank put him, and walk easily among his men, relying on his own personality and the respect he had earned from them to give him the superior position he must occupy if he wished to lead. He had consequently to steer a delicate course between treating those under him as equals in humanity if inferiors in status, and losing their respect by becoming too much one of them. He must deal with them sympathetically and at all times interpret the law in the spirit and not in the letter, but he had equally to be jealous of his position, and never to allow leniency to be looked upon as weakness, or friendship to degenerate into familiarity. He had, in short, to discriminate between the men who would appreciate his interest and those who would be foolish enough to try and impose upon his good nature.
This was a case in point. Nothing was left to me but to take disciplinary action, and sending for his platoon commander, Hall, I ordered him to be relieved of his post and brought up for punishment when we got out of the line. For that show of bad manners, he was to lose his lance-stripe.
It was but a few moments before our minds were turned to less serious thoughts. Hall and I had walked a little farther along to the right of the sector — we were standing talking in the front line when we noticed a scuffling of earth in the parados [rear crest] of the trench, and out fell a furry, fat little mole. It appeared as one of Nature’s miracles that this blind, slow creature could have survived in ground so pounded and upturned. After holding him for a few minutes, and marvelling at the strength of his tiny limbs, we put him into his hole again to find his way back whence he had come. A few desperate clawings, and he had disappeared. How we wished we could dig ourselves in so easily!
As darkness drew on, the mist lifted, and Purkiss, as company cook, and the officers’ servants were sent out of the line to make ready the camp against our arrival. They were a reluctant party that set off over the top, loath to leave the comparative safety of their forward position to cross that dreaded two miles of shell-swept mud separating us from the nearest approach to civilized comforts.
Darkness took the place of fog, but the effect was much the same. The day had been but a continuation of the night. The only difference was that night was the time of movement. Just as an English countryside comes to life after dark, when even the roadside hedge is quick with rustlings and squeakings, so the dead landscape of the Somme stirred into activity with nightfall. And as we listened to the now familiar far-off rumble of transport behind the enemy lines as behind our own, there was this evening the knowledge that soon we were to be relieved, to go back out of this outpost to some camp where we should have braziers and blankets and hot food. We had all been through it before, most of us more times than we could remember. We were familiar with every dreary detail of relief as we were of taking-over, yet there was no one of us, not even the most hardened campaigner, who would not confess to being seized on every such occasion with the fear that at the last moment something dreadful would happen, some disaster overtake him before he had passed through the danger zone which separated the line from the safety of the back areas. It might come by a chance sniper’s bullet, striking him down noiselessly before he even got out of the trenches. It might come with a scream out of the darkness when the worst of the journey lay behind him.
So it was on this night of November 13. The marvel of three days without rain had enabled us more quickly than usual to get the trenches clean and tidy, to collect our kit, and put ourselves in readiness to depart as soon as the Worcesters should appear. The result was that the men were waiting for the relief almost as soon as night fell, and tried to keep their spirits up, after the manner of the British soldier, by singing all the most mournful ditties they knew from ‘Don’t Go Down the Mine, Daddy’, to ‘Oh My, I Don’t Want to Die! I Want to Go Home’.
I had to make a final last trip round the sector, noting with a certain pride the improvements that the kindness of the elements had allowed us to make. Not only had we temporarily subjugated the mud, but we had added another brand-new piece to the great jig-saw puzzle of the trench system of the Western Front. There were also arrangements to be made with Mac about moving the company out. We had been ordered to salvage as much derelict equipment and stores as possible, and that meant putting further burdens in the shape of waterproof capes, sheets, or great-coats on to already tired and overladen men. But there was another point, and one which served to show me how very easy it is to write orders which were capable of more than one interpretation. 1, for some incomprehensible reason, had read the command about Company Commanders reporting ‘relief complete’ at Battalion Headquarters, to mean that 1, at the head of my straggling followers, was to flounder through the mud to that death-trap the Sunken Road, and, while they awaited almost certain destruction, inform the Adjutant that we had handed over properly and without incident. I waxed righteously indignant. Whatever was the Colonel thinking about, I asked Mac, giving orders so unlike him in their disregard of the men’s safety! Anyway, I would do nothing of the sort. If I had to report personally I would report alone, and Mac should take the company out by the quickest and easiest way he could find. 1 would meet him at Ginchy cross-roads.
One, two, nearly three hours dragged by with the men getting more restive and anxious to be gone. The enemy left us alone, confining his ‘frightfulness’ to the valley behind. This was a temporary blessing only, causing each one of us to shrink the more from the thought of the journey we should have to make. We had become such troglodytes that to leave the shelter of a trench induced a feeling of nakedness. Not until nearly eleven o’clock did there come the welcome sounds of men approaching, and the Worcesters began filing in. They had had a rotten time in the passage of the valley, poor devils, much worse than we had had, and had lost several men. Still, favoured by the weather and undisturbed by ‘Fritz’ the ceremony of handing-over was accomplished with all possible haste and, shepherded by the lanky Mac, the company struggled out on their journey to Ginchy. Unlike the Devons, we left no rum behind us!
As soon as the last man was clear of the trenches, I started out for Battalion Headquarters in the Sunken Road, so confident in my ability to find it that 1 took no orderly with me. Alas for such presumption! I had gone no more than a few dozen paces when I began to have misgivings. Surely, I should have passed Dewdrop Trench by now. I paused to take what bearings I could, but the night was black as pitch. Landmarks there were none. A shell burst here and there, and I remember thinking what a wrong impression the ordinary war pictures gave. They always showed shells exploding with a vivid flash, but all that now happened was a scream, a thud, and a little shower of red sparks as from a blacksmith’s anvil. There was not the faintest glimmer to light me on my way. 1 stumbled on. Doubts became anxiety. I was lost! No matter that I ought to know I could not be far away from some one; I was afraid. Throughout the war this was my worst nightmare - to be alone, and lost and in danger. Worse than all the anticipation of battle, all the fear of mine, raid, or capture, was this dread of being struck down somewhere where there was no one to find me, and where I should lie till I rotted back slowly into the mud. I had seen those to whom it had happened.
So now anxiety passed almost at once into panic. I went forward more quickly first at a sharper walk, then at a desperate blundering trot. Was it imagination? Or were more shells really beginning to fall, rushing down to sink into the soft earth and burst with smothered thuds? Yes! Little showers of red sparks were all around me. I struggled on, fell once, again, many times, tore my coat on barbed wire, cut my hand. When would a bullet from those chattering machine-guns strike me in the head or back? The nape of my neck ran cold at the thought. My heart thumped louder than ever, both from terror and effort. I was getting blown [exhausted]. I could go no further. Then I stumbled, pitched forward, slithered down several feet, caught my kit on some signal wires, sank up to my elbows in wet mud. I had reached the Sunken Road!
Breathless and shaken, I struggled to my feet. A head peered at me out of a sandbagged dug-out entrance. I asked the owner the whereabouts of the West Yorkshire headquarters. He thought there were some infantry battalion headquarters a little farther up the road on the opposite side, but whose he did not know. He was a signaller, he confessed, as if to excuse his lack of information. There was nothing for it but to find out for myself.
What a cess-pit that Sunken Road was! Over ankle-deep in slime, it was strewn with the bodies of horses and mules in varying stages of decay. Yet its battered banks afforded the only convenient cover for a wide area around, so into them had been driven dug-outs, British and German, into which were crammed all those whose duties kept them in the forward zone without taking them into the trenches. There were the headquarters of two or three battalions, the forward posts of batteries, both field and heavy, signallers, sappers, and odd details of all arms. 1 made shouted inquiries down two or three shafts before I pulled aside the tattered sandbag cover which hung before the right dug-out, and entered a tiny candle-lit burrow. In it were installed the Worcesters. My own regiment had gone!
This was the crowning blow. With apologies for my intrusion, I set out again into the darkness, feeling more wretched and hopeless than ever after the brief vision of light and warmth. But this time luck was with me, and hardly had I scrambled up the bank than some one said, ‘Who’s there?’ and I recognized Hawley’s voice. He was making for Ginchy with an orderly who knew the way, so we set off together. With company the whole atmosphere seemed to change. The danger remained the same, yet the presence of others banished at once the terror that had assailed me. In a few minutes we were passing battery positions and were dazzled by the stabbing, lemon flashes of the guns as they fired towards us. Then we struck the duck-board track which, rickety and shell-smashed though it was, led us steadily towards Ginchy. Lights again began to appear in dug-out doors and gun-positions, now far enough away from the enemy to disregard the risk of detection, and at last we were able to make out groups of men in the darkness. We had made Ginchy cross-roads, and the men were B Company in artillery formation, into which Mac had put them to lessen the danger from any chance shell. Thanks to his guidance in avoiding the bad places, they had got out without loss.
Without wasting time in marvelling at this miracle, the Company fell in and moved off. That march was a nightmare. Not till then did I realize how tired I was, nor how done the men. I had snatched less sleep than they - my total for the three days was no more than six hours - and had been more continuously ‘on the go’. They, on the other hand, were overloaded with sodden kit. We had not gone far before requests were made for a halt. I turned a deaf ear. Men so weary, I argued, would only fall asleep the moment they broke rank. It would be the harder to get them on the move again. Besides, we were still in the shelled area. Requests turned to protests. Some of the younger men could hardly walk. Officers and the fresher N CO s took over rifles and packs from the most fatigued but without avail. The querulous, half-mutinous demands for rest grew more insistent. They were the cries of semi-conscious minds tortured by over-exertion and lack of sleep. Still I took no notice, vowing that not until we were in the haven of our own camp would I call a halt. ‘I won’t stop! I won’t stop! I won’t stop!’ I repeated to myself with each agonizing step. My ears, deaf to all else, sung the refrain. But to no purpose. Will said, ‘I won’t stop’; Body argued, ‘I can’t go on.’ And so it was. After what seemed hours of tramping I could go no farther. All my determination was thrown to the winds. ‘Halt!’ I could do no more than speak the command. It was enough. The word was scarce uttered before every one, myself included, had thrown himself down on to the bricks and rubbish at the roadside. There we lay, silent, exhausted. Will began to reassert itself. This was no good. The longer we stayed the more difficult it would be to go on. Somehow, how I do not know, we stirred and prodded the men into movement again. Cursing and grunting, they shambled forward with the unsteady steps of sleep-walkers. I tried to square my shoulders for the long march that I felt must lie ahead. Irony of ironies! We had not moved more than a few score paces before the gruff voice of Company Sergeant-Major Scott was heard shouting ‘This way, B Company.’ We had fallen out less than a hundred yards from camp!
But what miles we must have marched! How many was it? The distance from Ginchy cross-roads to La Briqueterie camp was no more than three and a half miles! The front line was under five miles away. There is no doubt the Somme taught us that distance is a relative term, not to be measured in yards and feet.
Once again we were under canvas, La Briqueterie being a camp of bell-tents where once had stood the brickyard which had figured so prominently in the despatches describing the September battles around Montauban. Unlike the pitiful ‘Camp 34’ at Trônes Wood, La Briqueterie would not have been entirely disgraced by comparison with the real thing as seen at Aldershot or on Salisbury Plain. Tents were pitched in regular lines, and were well and truly guyed with a brazier alight and glowing in each one, and dear old Hinchcliffe, the Quartermaster, ready to issue hot soup and rum for every man. We felt we had fallen into luxury indeed. Lord! How the keen edge of appreciation of creature comforts is blunted by a life of peace! Did not a mess-tin of stew, a tot of rum or whisky and water in a tin mug, taste more like divine nectar than the best champagne drunk out of the finest cut-glass to-day? To enjoy ease, it is surely necessary to labour. To enjoy luxury, it is necessary to live hard. Since our work in these after-days is all too often sedentary, since we all too often tend to overfeed, and since we shun living hard, if we have not lost the capacity for it, it is small wonder that we are dyspeptically out of tune with life, and have to pay to have our jaded appetites whetted by manufactured thrills on stage, screen, dirt-track, or playing field. No such necessity existed in France in the war years. The enemy provided excitement enough.
However it may be, our spirits rose and our mouths watered at the delectable prospect which had opened so suddenly out of the night. Mac and George I sent to take off their equipment, staying myself to watch Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Carlton allot tents to the company, and Company Sergeant-Major Scott start to serve out the soup. Having seen things properly started, I went off to remove my burdensome equipment before returning to supervise the rum issue. As my guide led me to the officers’ lines, he pointed to a great hole which yawned where the next tent to ours had stood. ‘That was your tent this afternoon, sir,’ he told me, ‘but about two hours ago Jerry dropped an eight-inch shell there and “napoo-ed” it.’ He reassured me that this had been the only shell the enemy had put into the camp. Still, that hole would have been a disquieting feature in a rest camp had it not been that I was too tired to do more than register its presence as a fact.
I had barely started to take off my kit when an orderly came to say, ‘Colonel wants you in B Company lines at once, sir.’ Tearing off the bulkiest items of my ‘Christmas Tree’, I hurried back to find the Colonel standing with Scott.
‘What does this mean?’ he demanded. ‘Don’t you know yet that an officer’s place is with his men? Haven’t you learnt yet that an officer has no right to think of his own comfort until he has satisfied himself that every one of his men is comfortable? Not only that, but you go away to your tent and leave a warrant officer to issue rum, which is entirely against all orders.’ I struggled to explain that my offence was not so heinous as it seemed. I had not left until the men had been settled in and soup was being issued. I had had no intention of staying away, and I had given no instructions to any one to issue rum. At this the Colonel calmed down, and I recount the incident to illustrate his determination that the welfare of his men should be the first concern of every officer. I accompanied him through the lines, and that he was satisfied was soon evident as he left me with an invitation to come round to Battalion Headquarters for a drink when I had finished.
Although this was evidence of forgiveness, I rounded on Scott, asking why in Heaven he, of all people, had presumed to issue rum. His answer that he had done so quite deliberately because he had thought I had had about enough, and it was one way in which he could help me, completely disarmed me, and the stinging rebuke which I had contemplated turned to thanks.
At long last our duties were at an end. Every man was bedded down in warmth and with a belly reasonably full of soup and rum. It was nearly two o‘clock. Bidding Scott good-night I turned thankfully towards the tent allotted to the Headquarters Mess. This I found brightly lit and almost inconveniently crowded. The Colonel was there, and Maclaren, and Matheson, and young Rayner, the assistant Adjutant, who like poor Skett was a recent arrival from Sandhurst and like him too, destined not to survive the war. There were cheery greetings, and Brownlow, imperturbable as ever, brought a whisky and soda. As I drank it the Colonel congratulated me on the behaviour of A and B Companies during the tour, and apologized for his testiness in ‘strafing’ me. He too was overtired.
His appreciation, coupled with a second whisky and soda, gave me a pleasurably warm feeling. Life took on a different complexion. Everything was good. Every one was friendly. I stayed chatting with Matheson for a few minutes, long enough to learn that the Boche had in fact put down a barrage as we were coming out - so that shelling when I lost my way was not imagination, I registered to myself-and D Company had been caught in it, though providentially without losing a man. Since we had last met two of our friends had gone West, but except for a passing reference - ‘rotten luck’ - their names were not mentioned. We were glad to be out, to be alive, and be together again.
I said my good-nights and sallied forth into the night air. Could I walk to my tent? Could I even stand? No! Two whiskies and soda on an empty stomach and in my exhausted physical condition had made me so drunk that I had to crawl home on all fours. Too tired and too fuddled to undress, I struggled out of jacket and boots, rolled into my flea-bag, and almost before I lay down had joined my snores to those of Mac and George.