Joseph Shuter Smith.

Over there and back in three uniforms, being the experiences of an American boy in the Canadian, British and American armies at the front and through No man's land online

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Online LibraryJoseph Shuter SmithOver there and back in three uniforms, being the experiences of an American boy in the Canadian, British and American armies at the front and through No man's land → online text (page 2 of 10)
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Here and there we passed a farm with an
old, broken-down horse and a boy working
in a field. Again there were aged, crooked-
backed men or women tilling the ground
with ancient hoes, lacking even an ox.

Finally we stopped. Our officers ran
along the train. "All out," they shouted,
and we scrambled down. The train pufifed
away, severing our last connection with

Again it was "fall in," again march off.
So deadly monotonous do these calls become
that even the glamour of France could not
take away the monotony of them. Away
we went, already tired after our long



'Where are we going?" flew up and down
the line.

"Somewhere in France," the grouch an-
swered. And we plodded along in silence.
Darkness came, and off in the distance we
could see an occasional light twinkling. It
seemed to be a sardonic wink.

"Pass it back — two more kilos," came
from the front.

"Pass it back — what the blinking blank is
a kilo?" was the answer.

"Something that never ends," interjected
the grouch.

All things must end, though, and we
greeted with a very feeble cheer our com-
pany commander's order to halt and fall out
on the side of the road. He passed through
the gate of a farmhouse and we looked at
it with interest. It was our first billet in
France. We followed him through the gate
in a few minutes and into the barn, the
floor of which was well covered with straw.
As we threw off our kits our officer in-



formed us that there would be no smoking
in the bam and that no one could leave the

Tommy and I, not being chosen for sentry
go, promptly started out to find something
to eat. Right across the road was another
farmhouse and in we bounced. We thought
maybe we wouldn't understand the French
word for ^^Come in" if we knocked, so we
walked right in and were greeted by the
grouch with ''Say, fellows, what's the
French for meat?" Not knowing, we
couldn't tell him, but we ''bon joured" to
madame and her family. They all ''bon
joured" to us in chorus.

Tommy, after a terrible struggle, man-
aged to enunciate ''doo pan," and I
pointed to my mouth. The Madame "com-
preed" and produced a loaf of bread.
''Beer," said Tommy, and she produced it.
Then she turned loose a flood of French on
Tommy. He nearly choked as it dawned
on him that she supposed he spoke her lan-



guage. When she stopped, he said, "Can
you beat it!" and she started again. When
she stopped for want of breath we shook
our heads and answered "No compree."
Disgusted at our limitations she retired to
her corner and family, and Tommy, the
grouch and I sat across the room eating our
bread and meat and drinking our beer.

Looking around the place I suffered
another shock. This wasn't France! It was
just the kind of room you would find in any
other part of the world and, aside from the
tongue, we might have found the family in
Alberta or South Dakota or Oklahoma.

I can't tell you what I expected to find,
but whatever it was, it wasn't there.

When we could eat no more we laid all
our money on the table. Madame walked
over and picked out some. We pocketed
the remainder, bowed, "bon joured" and
left. We got into billets again all right, but
we had lost our sleeping places, so Tommy
and I climbed into a farmer's wagon out-



side. A good thing we did, too. Some of
Madame's pigs got into the stable with the
company and we awoke to a revielle of
squealing pigs, bellowing men and voluble
Frenchwomen. My! what a row! Madame
was very indignant for a while over the
treatment her pigs had received but she soon
got over it. Those pigs were destined to
cause more trouble, however.

After a two days' rest we prepared to
march on "up the line," and it was then
one of the pigs and one of the officers elected
to send us away with a grin. We had
fallen in by platoons in the farmyard and
had passed inspection. We were standing
at ease, our officer in front of, and in the
center of, his platoon. (That sounds Irish
but it isn't.) Now, British army regula-
tions prescribe that when a soldier stands
at ease he shall carry his right foot twenty-
seven inches to his right, with hands clasped
behind his back when he has no rifle and not
move or talk. Eyes must be front. Our



officer, being an officer, was doing all this
in most rigid compliance with regulations.
Of course, he had to be an example to the

Then, without warning, along came a
pig, full of grunts and hunger. He passed
down the front of our line. Not liking our
looks, he right-turned and started away,
and the only way he could pick out to evade
us was between our officer's legs. He got
his head through, but found then that
twenty-seven inches was not enough for the
rest of him. Before the officer had time to
think, the pig gave a loud "eee," started
double quick and the officer sat on the ani-
mal's back. This not only annoyed but it
frightened the pig so it became a third rate
imitation of a bucking broncho. In two
bucks our young commander was on his
nose in the dirt and the pig ran squealing

We laughed. We yelled. Then we were
disciplined for it. But we were on the last



long leg of our nine months' trip from Van-
couver to the trenches and the picture of
the officer and the pig helped us mightily
through that day's march and many another
one. And that, you may agree, was worth
the punishment.



We were in France! No one could deny
it, especially when we tried to buy anything
in the shops. Yet, marching along the
roads, rows of tall, straight poplars on either
side and a wonderful blue sky overhead,
it seemed hard to realize we were in the
heart of grim, hideous WAR. We were
too far behind the lines yet to see anything
of the war as it was, but that night we heard
the guns for the first time. It was a dull
and far-distant booming that caught a keen
ear or two in the ranks and then in a few
minutes we all were hearing it. If we
hadn't been in France we might have put it
down as the low rumbling of thunder as
we hear it in the States during a late sum-
mer's shower.

But we were in France, and we knew!
And strange to relate, it made us happy. I
don't think there was a man among us whose



heart didn't beat a little faster and his breath
come a little quicker at the nearness of that
which we had come over seas to find. So
we cheered, and sang ourselves to sleep, and
wakened often in the night anxious for the
morning and movement.

Daylight found us on our way again and
soon we ran into all the activity of behind
the lines — that army that keeps the fighting
army fit for the fight: horses, wagons, motor
trucks, automobiles, ambulances, puffing
engines with their queer little trains along-
side piles of coal, piles of shells, hay, grain,
ammunition, meat — everything one could
think of, and all in what seemed to be a
hopeless confusion.

All these things disentangled themselves
regularly every day and were sent away up
the line so the troops in the trenches could
carry on. But as we went along we were
smothered in the dust of motor trucks
speeding by with every conceivable thing
a great army needs and others coming back



empty for more. Always it was more, more,
more! Just as though some insatiable mon-
ster was up there in front.

Sandwiched between the motor trucks
were the horse transports, with the great,
soft-eyed horses plodding stolidly along
looking at us as we passed and wondering
what it was all about. They were passed
on the road by the lighter and more frisky
artillery teams drawing their little guns.
White with dust and driven by cocky
youngsters full of pride in themselves,
horses and drivers seemed to sense their
superiority over the less agile transport

Swinging in and out through all the line
went the ambulances — going "up" for those
who had ''copped" it during the night. All
traffic gave way to them. On the "up" trip
they were out to shatter all the speed laws,
but on the trip "down," curtains fastened
taut at the back, they were driven with a
skill that would make an ex-taxi chauffeur



turn in his grave; driven w^ith a skill born
of the knowledge of the suffering caused
inside by needless bumps and jolts. We sent
many glances after them, for we knew that
those men, hidden away from our sight, a
few hours before had been where we would
be in a few hours more.

We marched that day round-eyed with
wonder at all the things we saw. The very
magnitude of it appalled us. Dimly we
began to realize what a very small part of
it we were, after all. And the realization
did us a great deal of good.

Late that evening we arrived at a camp
about seven miles behind the line. We were
fearfully tired, but we were gloriously
happy. Then the next day it rained, and
our spirits drooped. At five o'clock that
afternoon we were ordered to fall in outsde
our huts. We fell in and there, standing on
an old ration box in the pouring rain was
the general who at that time commanded
the Canadian Expeditionary Force. With



no great coat or protection of any kind, he
stood there and talked to us. There were
no heroics; just a plain statement in the
simplest of terms. We were to take over
trenches that night, he said, and he told us
what to expect and what we were to do.
It made a great impression on all of us and
we cheered like mad as the general left with
our colonel by his side. He took with him
our hearts and our allegiance as he had done
with the first division.

In a few minutes the huts housed a mass
of chattering, swearing, sweating humanity.
Every man was trying vainly to shove into
corners where there was no room, things
that never should have been brought along
— and we were to march off in an hour. It
certainly was an active hour, but at its end
we were on our way to the trenches, five
rounds in the magazine of our rifles, not
for target practice this time. We were
going out to kill!

As I remember, I was not excited, but I



was expectant and eager to be in a first line
trench and see for myself all those things
we had been hearing about during our
months of training.

Silently we marched through a pitch-
black night. Two ruined villages loomed
up in our path like ghosts in a graveyard.
At last we were in a trench; a communi-
cation trench leading to the front line. We
walked and walked, winding in and out,
with now and then a flare shooting up from
the Boches or from our lines. Sometimes
they seemed right over us, but they were
not, for we caught not even a trace of their
glow. Then they would appear off in the
distance until we had to look twice to be
sure they were not shooting stars.

Sometimes we were squeezed tightly
against the mud walls.

Here and there we found spaces with
room for four men to pass abreast, and still
we walked, and cursed, because we were
dead tired. It was midnight and the rou-



tine of man's normal life said we should be
in bed. We had not yet taught nature she
was wrong.

With whispered injunctions to keep quiet
and stoop low, which we did to the amuse-
ment of the fellows we were relieving, we
arrived in the front line.

Of course my sergeant friend took me!
As soon as we were in the fire trench I was
told of]f to stand sentry. The man I was to
relieve whispered what I was to do and
climbed up on the firing step with me. I
fixed my bayonet, released the safety catch
on my rifle, and I was helping to guard the
world from the mad puppies on the other
side of the wire.

Here and there a gun boomed; big, little
and medium sized, but none sounded near
us, and I began to think it was a pretty
good game. Then I looked out over the
parapet. Something was moving out there!
Maybe the Germans had heard us making
the relief and were going to come out and



throw bombs at us. I had heard they did
that to new troops and it seemed to me they
could not have avoided knowing we were
new 'uns.

I looked again, and I was sure there were
hundreds of them. I blazed away into the
center of them. I emptied the magazine
and then ducked behind the parapet to re-
load. Visions of a V. C. for repelling an
attack single handed came suddenly before

They were still there, but they seemed to
have hesitated right in the middle of No
Man's Land. That was to be their fatal
mistake. I unloaded my next five rounds,
rapid, and once more dropped back to
throw in more cartridges.

Then such a bang! Something hit the
parapet in front of me with a crack and a
Boche flare went up. So did my head. I
was going to empty my last five rounds into
Fritz if it was the last thing I did in my
life. I put two rounds by the flare of that



light into the stakes supporting our wire
and then I quit. I was attracting too much
unfavorable notice from the other side of
the wire. When my relief came along I
told him of my mistake and advised him to
let the wire stakes stand as they were.

Daybreak brought us "stand to" and a
full picture of the mud and glory into
which we had come. Our stomachs being
empty, though, with rations in our haver-
sacks, we ate and for a few minutes, forgot.

A little sun, struggling through dirty
gray Flanders clouds, cheered us a bit and
we sat squat and hunched in various shapes
wondering what the day would bring.

The day sentry, standing on the firing
platform, slipped and slid into our midst
at the bottom of the trench. We laughed,
thinking he had missed his footing on the
slimy platform. But even as we laughed
the sound froze on our lips and the mirth
in our hearts. No man dropped his rifle
and fell huddled like that on his neck, just
for fun. His face lay up to the sun he had



seen for the last time. In the center of his
forehead was a little round hole.

We all jumped from him. I can confess
it — we were frightened. It was death star-
ing at us and we all were strangers to him.
It was the first of our thousand men who
came over seas to fight God's battles, to
reach the end of all journeys, and it brought
us to with a shock.

Since that day more than fourteen thou-
sand have passed through the old battalion
to keep it up to its strength and we who are
left have seen Death in all his hideous
forms. We are not calloused, we are not
unmindful, but no longer are we afraid.
We have discovered there are worse things
in life than Death and many a one of us
has had abundant cause to envy our first
pal to "go west."

One of the boys, bolder than the rest,
straightened the body on the floor of the
trench. Another mounted sentry and a third
went to report to our officer.

We had been "blooded!" A second's



curiosity, he had taken one peep over the
top in daylight, and he had paid. Curi-
osity is paid for dearly in all that vast region
known as "the front," and the first lesson
of fresh troops is to curb it.

Our officer came. Paybook and personal
belongings were taken from the pockets to
send to the folks at home. His ammunition,
rifle and equipment went to the rear, to the
dump, for someone else to use. It was war,
and he was finished. We covered the face
and body with a blanket and my mind flew
back, across the Channel, England, the
great Atlantic and Canada to the Pacific
coast; a little town on the Fraser river,
where a mother would soon be bowed with

I had known the boy and his mother. I
had eaten and slept in their home. I knew
the grief that would be hers and the pride
there would be in her heart, too. Her John !
Her boy, that she had raised and loved, had
died fighting for his country!

While it would be a bitter blow, what



more could a real mother ask than to be the
mother of a real man? She had told him
when she said good-bye: ''You are all my
heart, Johnny. If you come back, I will
be proud and happy. If you don't come
back, well — I wuU be proud."

Thus did this mother of Canada give her
son to the empire.

We kept the body by us to bury when
darkness should hide us from the enemy
and I went on sentry with it lying just below
me. The feet stuck out from under the
blanket and they fascinated me. I could
not keep my eyes away. I tried to think and
couldn't. Twelve hours before he had been
alive! A month before I had met him on
leave in London. A year before he had
been at home, never dreaming of war. Now
he was dead ! He knew what I wanted to
know; what everyone, sometime, wants to

Two hours watching those feet made me
a fatalist.

Night came, and with it the padre to



bury the first of his charges. We had sewed
the body in the blanket as well as we could
and we carried it about five hundred yards
behind the line and dug a shallow grave.
At nine o'clock a few of us who were not
working quietly filed down the trench and
there, with a dozen men kneeling round the
grave, the flares going up and down, the
rattle of the machine guns and the deep-
toned roar and hiss of the big guns singing
a requiem, we left him.

It was well it was dark. My eyes were
wet and I knew the others' were, as our old
padre read the burial service from memory
in a soft, low voice, and six of us pushed the
dirt back into the hole with our intrenching

Moving slowly away our minds inevit-
ably framed the question : "Who will be the
next?" And for a time we wondered, and
maybe worried. The days were coming soon,
although we didn't know it then, when there
would be plenty of casualties — hundreds



and thousands of them — but no such burial
as our first had received. Hell fire was to
come, blasting us with its fury, turning over
ground, killing and maiming, burying and
fi'^gg^^g up again, stifling us with putrid
fumes and giving us no rest. It was to make
boys of twenty into men of forty in less than
that number of hours, but it was to purify
and sanctify them in the process. It was to
make heroism a commonplace.

But we didn't know what was to come,
and with the resiliency of youth, we once
more were smiling and happy.



"Battalion is warned for relief."

So shouts the company sergeant major,
and we groan. It means we are going into
the trenches for another tour of duty while
the other fellows come out and rest. It
also means no one can move further than a
couple of hundred yards from billets until
it is time for the march up and that will be
within twenty-four hours.

More than that, it starts some terribly
heated arguments among the men as to who
will be in the firing line and who in sup-
ports. There are caustic comments con-
cerning the political influences of some pla-
toons that speak for the support line and
they, in turn, chide the bloodthirsty ten-
dencies of the other platoons.

There is no end to the argument until
one of three things happens: a meal arrives,
a parade is called, or the estaminet opena.



Then the warring factions call it off and
concentrate their attention, if so be, on the
meal or the estaminet. Parades? Well,
they've got to be done so they are done, but
not, I am afraid, with the concentration de-
voted to the other two.

The last night before going in every man
Jack tries to spend all his cash, if by any
chance there is any left after a week in
billets. But if there is none in some pockets
there is sure to be plenty in others, and the
boys who are broke are perfectly willing to
help their more affluent comrades reduce
their surplus.

It is so foolish to go into the trenches
with money in your pocket. In fact, it isn't
done. It is such an absurd waste. A fellow
might get blown up, then no one could
spend it. If you're killed with a bullet,
somebody else will spend it. If worst comes
to the worst and the Boches grab you, they
could spend it.

So take no chances. Spend it yourself



and go in with empty pockets. That is the
philosophy of the front.

^^Crown and Anchor" is in progress in
the huts for the benefit of the draft men
just out. Poor chaps ! They think they can
buck the bank and they chuck their coins
on "the lucky old mud hook" or something
equally good. The banker tries to *^bust"
them before the estaminet closes, while
three or four of the old hands look on with
disgust — and with parched throats. Need-
less to say both these conditions are due to
pockets already swept clean. And who can
blame them for being disgusted? Why
can't the draft men take them to the estam-
inet instead of throwing their francs away
on a banker's game" ?

Down the road in the estaminet the fun
is in full swing. The last half hour before
closing time has come and money is slip-
ping out quickly and easily, for the mild
Belgian and French beers have very slight
intoxicating effect. Here and there a seri-



ous-faced group may be sitting, talking in
low tones, earnestly thumping with fists to
emphasize some telling point. Madame
glares at them. They are "na poo"; all the
time talk, no drink. But madame has no
suspicion that they are the great generals
of the army, hidden behind private's tunics,
discussing what should have been done at
Neuve Chapelle or Loos, and that even now
they may be planning some stupidly easy
way to end the war.

But not even the serious thinkers can re-
sist the last fifteen minutes of grace and the
place becomes a roaring, pounding mass of
humanity, watched by madame with a
motherly smile on her face. These are her
boys, her ^'soldats," and she likes them.
They are careless in manner and full of
animal spirits, but this is their last night
"out" for awhile — maybe for always. And
she looks on with an "I knew it" expression
in her kindly, shrewd eyes as a few glasses
smash to the tune of her boys' farewell.



It was a song we had picked up from no
one knew where. It pleased us and we took
it as our own. To privileged persons whom
we esteemed — persons such as madame — it
was both our salute and our good-bye, and
as the military police came in to turn us
out we stood on chairs and on tables and
sang to madame. The song ran something
like this:

Oh, we come from the East
And we come from the West,
To fight for what we love the best;
Jolly Canucks are we!

Some of us are rich,

Some of us are bums;

But no one gives a damn

For the Kaiser and all his Huns;

Jolly Canucks are we!

No one can call it poetry. Probably it is
nothing at all, but we were very careful



and very particular where we sang it and to
whom. When we did sing it to any person
they might well consider it the highest of
compliments. To madame, as long as we
stayed in the district, we sang our farewell
every last night before we went into the

Our song over this night, we went to our
hut, which was an improvement over the
estaminet only in that its capacity was lim-
ited to twenty-two men. Sleep we could,
and did, however, and with no thought of
the morrow.

It never failed to rain when we made a
relief, and sure enough, next day it poured.
It came down in sheets ! But you can't post-
pone your relief on account of rain like you
can a ball game, so we packed up; not a
wardrobe trunk and handbag, but just what
we could carry on our backs in a clever but
fiendish device which seems to get heavier
and heavier with every step as you go along.
It only takes about five minutes to pack, but



when you get it all on your back you look
like a Christmas tree at a Sunday-school

It is a peculiar thing to pack up like this
to move into the trenches. Will you come
back? Will your pal? If you look around
and study the faces you probably will not
find a single fleeting expression to show
what these men think and feel. Reinforce-
ment men may display a keen curiosity and
ask innumerable questions, but these ques-
tions are quickly shut off by the most flip-
pant and absurd answers.

The old hand may indicate his feelings
by a fervent and more or less sulphurous
hope that he will get a ^'blighty'' this "time
in," but beyond that, war, to all outward
appearances, is the least of any one's
thoughts. At times like this, and just be-

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Online LibraryJoseph Shuter SmithOver there and back in three uniforms, being the experiences of an American boy in the Canadian, British and American armies at the front and through No man's land → online text (page 2 of 10)