Tuesday, July 17, 2012

“Crumps” The Plain Story of a Canadian Who Went – Louise Keene

This narrative published in 1917 provides a series of inter-connected vignettes written by Louise Keene a Captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Although not dated the vignettes cover the initial creation, training and deployment in France of the CEF, they finish sometime, probably late 1915 when Keene was injured and returned to Canada. In 1917 when the USA found itself in the same position as the Canadians had in 1914 the vignettes were published, with a forward written by US Major General (Leonard Wood), and made available to the newly recruited US soldiers. The intent as Wood stated was that as ‘many young Americans are about to undergo experiences similar to those of Captain Keene … a perusal of this modest and straight-forward narrative will help in the great work of getting ready’ . As it did in 1917 this narrative continues to provide an insight into the realities of the Western Front as can be evidenced by this sample of vignettes taken from the book:

A trip to No Man's Land is an excursion which you never forget. It varies in width and horrors. My impression was similar to what I should feel being on Broadway without any clothes--a naked feeling. Forty-seven and one half inches of earth are necessary to stop a bullet, and it's nice to have that amount of dirt between you and the enemy's bullets. The dead lie out in between the lines or hang up on the wire; they don't look pretty after they have been out some time. It's a pleasant job to have to get their identification disks, and we have to search the bodies of the enemy dead for papers and even buttons so that we can know what unit is in front of us. Flowers grow in between, butterflies play together, and birds nest in the wire. When the grass becomes too high it has to be cut, because otherwise it would prevent good observation. In some places grass doesn't have a chance to even take root, let alone grow. The shells take care of that.

Enemy snipers give us a great deal of trouble. It is very difficult to locate them. One of our men tried out an original scheme. He put an empty biscuit tin on the parapet. Immediately the sniper put a bullet through it. Now thought the Genius, "If I look through the two holes it will give me my direction,"--so getting up on the firestep he looked through, only to roll over with the top of his head smashed off by a bullet. The sniper was shooting his initials on the tin.

We are all used to dead bodies or pieces of men, so much so that we are not troubled by the sight of them. There was a right hand sticking out of the trench in the position of a man trying to shake hands with you, and as the men filed out they would often grip it and say, "So long, old top, we'll be back again soon." One man had the misfortune to be buried in such a way that the bald part of the head showed. It had been there a long time and was sun-dried. Tommy used him to strike his matches on. A corpse in a trench is quite a feature, and is looked for when the men come back again to the same trench.

This place isn't somewhere in France, it's somewhere in Hell! It has been the scene of a great many encounters; decayed French uniforms, old rifles, ammunition and leather equipment and bundles of mildewed tobacco leaves are strewn all over the place. I found the chin-strap of a German "Pickelhaube" in the grounds, the helmet of a French cuirassier, and the red pants of a Zouave, close together. When digging in the trenches or anywhere near the firing line you have to be careful: corpses, dead horses, and cattle are buried everywhere. I'm building a trench to my emplacement and we have a stinking cow in the direct line; this will have to be buried before we can cut through.’  “Crumps” The Plain Story of a Canadian Who Went – Louise Keene

Monday, July 9, 2012

On the Right of the British Line by Captain Gilbert Nobbs

Gilbert Nobbs was a Captain in the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade). He joined the Battalion on 8 August 1916 during the battle of the Somme. As B Company commander he was involved in the Battalions attack at Leuze Wood on 9 September 1916 where he was wounded and taken prisoner. His narrative of this engagement provides a vivid description of the confusion and disarray surrounding the operations at this stage of the Somme battle whilst that of the final assault captures the bravery of the men involved and the hell many of them did not survive.

Extract from: On theRight of the British Line by Captain Gilbert Nobbs. (pp 106 – 115)

Half my strength had gone, and the real attack had not yet begun. I sent for the remaining platoon commanders and explained the situation:
"No. 6 Platoon will now become the first wave. Form up and extend along the edge of the wood and await my signal to advance into the open. No. 7 Platoon, form up immediately in rear; and No. 8 Platoon, assemble in the trench close up. Bombing section of No. 6 will proceed along the trench parallel with the advance, bombing it out as they go along."
The men formed up. The minutes seemed to be like hours. We were facing the inside of the square trench, which was a mass of shell-holes, and as though anticipating our intention, shells were bursting and bullets whistling on all sides. ………………………………..
At last the thunder of our guns towards the German lines confirmed the hour. Zero hour had arrived; the barrage had begun.
"No-. 6 Platoon will advance."
The front line jumped up and walked into the open. Wonderful ! Steady as a rock ! The line
was perfect. On the left the front line of C Company has also emerged from the wood; the bombers of No. 6 Platoon disappeared along the mystery trench.
The tut-ut-ut-ut of machine-guns developed from several parts of the square, while the crack of rifles increased in intensity. No. 7 Platoon jumped up and advanced into the open, followed by the third wave. I extended my runners and followed.
What followed next beggars description. As I write these lines my hand hesitates to describe the hell that was let loose upon those men. No eye but mine could take in the picture so completely.
Will the world ever know what these men faced and fought against these men of the City of London? Not unless I tell it, for I alone saw all that happened that day; and my hand alone, weak and incapable though it feels, is the only one that can do it.
Barely had I emerged from the wood with my ten runners when a perfect hurricane of shells were hurled at us, machine-guns from several points spraying their deadly fire backward and forward, dropping men like corn before the reaper. From all three sides of the square a hurricane of fire was poured into the centre of the square upon us, as we emerged from the wood.
In far less time than it takes to record it, the attacking waves became a mere sprinkling of men. They went on for a yard or two, and then all seemed to vanish; and even my runners, whom I had extended into line, were dropping fast.
The situation was critical, desperate. Fearful lest the attack should fail, I ran forward, and collecting men here and there from shell-holes where some had taken refuge, I formed them into a fresh firing-line, and once more we pressed forward.
Again and again the line was thinned; and again the survivors, undaunted and unbeaten, reformed and pressed forward.
Men laughed, men cried in the desperation of the moment. We were grappling with death; we were dodging it, cheating it; we were mad, blindly hysterical. What did anything matter? Farther and farther into the inferno we must press, at any cost, at any cost; leaping, jumping, rushing, we went from shell-hole to shell-hole; and still the fire continued with unrelenting fury.
I jumped into a shell-hole, and found myself within ten yards of my objective. My three remaining runners jumped in alongside of me. They were Arnold, Dobson, and Wilkinson.
Arnold was done for! He looked up at me with eyes staring and face blanched, and panted out that he could go no farther, and I realised that I could count on him no more.
I glanced to the left, just in time to see three Germans not five yards away, and one after the other jump from a shell-hole which formed a sort of bay to their trench, and run away.
Wishing to save the ammunition in my revolver for the hand-to-hand scuffle which seemed imminent, I seized the rifle of Arnold and fired. I missed all three; my hand was shaky.
What was I to do next? The company on my left had disappeared; the trench just in front of me was occupied by the Bodies. I had with me three runners, one of whom was helpless, and in the next shell-hole about six men, the sole survivors of my company.
Where were the supports? Anxiously I glanced back toward the wood ; why did they not come?
Poor fellows, I did not know it at the time, but the hand of death had dealt with them even more
heavily in the wood than it had with us.
My position was desperate. I could not retire. My orders were imperative: "You must reach your objective at any cost." I must get there somehow. But even if we got there, how long could I hope to hold out with such a handful of men?
Immediate support I must have; I must take risks. I turned to brave Dobson and Wilkinson:
"Message to the supports: 'Send me two platoons quickly; position critical.’"
Without a moment's hesitation they jumped up and darted off with the message which might save the day.
Dobson fell before he had gone two yards; three paces farther on I saw Wilkinson, the pet of the company, turn suddenly round and fall on the ground, clutching at his breast. All hope for the supports was gone.
At this moment the bombing section, which by this time had cleared the mystery trench, arrived on the right of the objective; and to my delirious joy, I noticed the Germans in the trench in front of me running away along the trench.
It was now, or never! We must charge over that strip of land and finish them with the bayonet. A moment's hesitation and the tables might again be turned, and all would be lost. The trench in front must be taken by assault; it must be done. There were six or seven of us left, and we must do it.
I yelled to the men:
"Get ready to charge, they are running. Come on! Come on!"
I jumped out of the shell-hole, and they followed me. Once again I was mad. I saw nothing, I heard nothing; I wanted to kill! kill!
Pf ung!
Oh ! My God ! I was hit in the head ! I was blind!