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 3 of 10)
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fore an attack, you always believe — in fact
you are absolutely sure — it is someone else
who will "get it.''

All packed up and with the midday



meal over we lay around waiting for
two o'clock. It comes all too quickly
and the sergeant calls through the door:
"Fall in on the road, No. i platoon."
We heave our kits into place and move
out into the driving rain. We fall in
on a wet, slippery cobblestone road. There
is a lot of pushing and shoving as we get
into place and then there is dead silence.

The roll is called, the C. O. appears from
nowhere, takes the sergeant's report of "all
present," gives the command "Right turn,
quick march," and we start off.

What luck we are in for now no one
knows or cares. Our immediate problem is
wrestling with fifty pounds on the back and
a wet, slippery, slimy road, and if you will
believe me, it is some wrestling match ! We
skate more than we march, with every now
and then someone going "crash!" rifle one
way, body another, much to the amusement
of his pals and the detriment of his own



Then comes a shout from up ahead,
"Keep to the right," and we ease off to the
side of the road while a big motor truck
lumbers by, splashing mud aplenty over all
of us. Then the whole platoon breaks out
in language that would put a Washington
logger to shame. Another goes by filling
our eyes and mouths with liquid mud, and
our rage sends us into shrieks, but still
another and another chug past, each driven
by some self-satisfied young chauffeur
whose greatest delight is to annoy us and
start our flow of profanity. By his side sits
his fat helper. Both have broad grins on
their faces and they seem to say: "Fools,
why didn't you join our branch of the ser-
vice, and you'd never have to walk?"

They disappear to the rear and our curs-
ings die away in mutterings, as we must
save our breath to help us over the roads.
So, silently we trudge along in the rain and
the gathering gloom. For a moment we envy
those men on the lorries and frankly confess



it to ourselves, yet in the next moment we
are fiercely proud that we are the infantry,
the foot sloggers that live in the mud and
muck of the trenches.

Dirty we may be, and full of '^cooties," but
we are the boys who clinch the argument
and we are fighting proud of our three year
traditions and the hundreds of years' old
traditions of the French and British in-
fantry by whose side we man the parapets.
Our American doughboys will learn that
feeling too. They will recognize that other
branches of the service are important, yet
they will tolerate them, and that's all.

So we slither along and come to some bat-
teries of artillery lining the road, the dug-
outs for their crews near by. It is dark
now and as it is to be a quiet night the gun-
ners are in their shelters, but their sentries
spot us and call to their mates, "the infantry
is going by." Then they all come tumbling
out to wish us good luck. They are our
friends, if friends we have. They know it



and we know it. They know what we go
through and we love them because they give
back, shell for shell and then some for in-
terest, every one Fritz drops onto us. We
depend on them, and they on us.

With much good natured bantering we
slip through the early night toward ruin
and desolation, and they go back to their
warm, dry blankets.

Now we branch off the road and take to
the fields which will provide a short cut to
the communication trenches. As we go
skating over this treacherous ground we
come to a little patch of turnips cultivated
by the French peasants with that wonderful
spirit which carries them right up to the
shell zone and makes them fill in a shell
hole in their garden and replant it. As we
cross we stoop and pick up the turnips. Not
bothering to peel them, we rub off the worst
of the dirt and, still eating them, we arrive
at another road and the entrance to the



Here we rest, lying on the road, our uni-
forms absorbing more of the sticky mud.
We are tired, however, so it does not mat-
ter; not even the fact that a shell may come
down and scatter bodies in all directions,
souls going to their Maker even before the
bodies come down like huge chunks of mud.
That such a possibility exists, no one doubts,
but no one is worried about it.

Mud and water soon cool one and we
show signs of restlessness. Up we get and
in single file enter the communication
trench, which gradually gets deeper until
it is above our heads and we are swallowed
in an inky blackness. The journey is nearly
over now, except for that turning and twist-
ing and winding in a monotonous, endless
sort of maze, with the way lighted into day
one minute by a flare and the next minute
blackness more intense than ever.

Now a man slips and falls, the next in
file tumbling on top of him. Endless con-
versation about the matter follows, but on



we go and gradually we come nearer to the
flares and to those men who are waiting
for us — those men who have been there for
the last six days, answering shot for shot
from the enemy, lying in their ditch full
of muck and corruption, graced by the
name of trench, while the artillery hourly
played on and over them. For six days
they have been there, suffering their cas-
ualties and standing up under punishment,
while we had our rest. Now it is their
turn, and we hurry on that our relief will
be on time, for in six more days they will
relieve us and we will want them to be on

Sweating and staggering under the
weight of our packs we slip into our posi-
tions. With whispered bantering and
*'good luck, bo," they melt into the night.
We are ^4n."

We are nicely settled in our new quarters
when dawn begins to streak the eastern sky.
Suddenly the whole world is alight.


"Hey, fellows, just take a look through
this periscope at No Man's Land. Of all
the over-rated places in the world this has
got 'em beat."

That was Tommy's opinion.

"What the did you expect to see,"

asked the grouch.

"Well, bodies hanging in the wire to
start with, and there ain't a one. Then
some on the ground. But just look! There
ain't a thing in sight!"

We all jumped up to peep in turn and
it was a terrible disillusionment. Abso-
lute quiet reigned all over. Our trenches
were situated near the top of a hill, and
we could look back behind our front line.
Forward we could see a hundred yards
ahead to a wall of sandbags and dirt — the
German parapet.

There was not a moving thing, backward
or ahead, except trees and grass swaying to
a North Sea wind. The air was full of
strange sounds ; aeroplanes on the wing, big



battle planes, the smaller and speedier
scouts; the sharp crack of a rifle or the
whine of its ricochet; the lazy roar of a
shell that now and then came our way, in-
creasing its roar to a scream of rage as it
reached the end of its journey and exploded
with a crash, throwing up dirt or man in
a great shower. Not a living thing could
be found on the top of the ground, though.
To go on the surface meant you would be
^^na poo" in a second. So we sat tight in
our trenches and looked at No Man's Land
through a periscope.

Imagine a river running from the North
Sea to Switzerland. I know rivers don't
run up hill, but just imagine it anyway,
twisting and turning, narrowing and widen-
ing as all rivers do. Take for the banks of
your river the parapets of the opposing
armies and then you have No Man's Land.
As a river, narrowing, sends its waters rush-
ing through the channel, so does the fight-
ing increase where No Man's Land nar-


rows, until at night there is a continual flash
over these parts. From afar you can pick
out the narrow strips like you can pick the
swift running parts of the river by the in-
creasing roar of the waters.

Where No Man's Land widens then
there, like on a river, you find peace and
quiet, after a fashion, and live your life
underground as best you can, happy and
content that you are alive.

At night, from the rear, you can pick
out the broader reaches of No Man's Land
by the regular rise and fall of the flares,
making no more noise than a river slipping
quietly toward the sea.

That is No Man's Land and that is why
Tommy was disappointed. Not that
Tommy was bloodthirsty. Far from it.
His imagination had led him to expect
something else; bodies, enemies and friends,
hung in the wire, piled high on the ground.
He had looked for and expected daily,
even hourly, hand-to-hand conflicts with the



Germans in which much blood would be
spilled. Oh! the disappointment of it.

Tommy really was disgusted, for what he
saw through his periscope was a strip of
land about a hundred and twenty yards
wide, exactly the same as any other strip
of land a hundred and twenty yards wide,
only at the other side was a wall of sand-
bags and dirt three or four feet high.

'Wonder if ours looks like that," thought
Tommy out loud.

''Go out and see, you fool," said

the grouch, which was the start of a local
engagement right then and there, and I
managed to get the periscope. I wanted
to see a German. We had been in the
trenches for nearly three months, off and on,
and had suffered some casualties; not many
— but none of us had seen a German yet.

No Man's Land wasn't worth looking at.
It was the same old story. There was wire
to start with; plenty of it. I have often
wondered how many thousands of miles of



wire must have been used up to now. After
our wire, more land, then German wire.
Rusty, lifeless, stupid looking stuff, it has
cost more in money, men, time and material,
to destroy and put up than any agent of war
except old Wilhelm der Grosse.

It is partly covered by the tall grass
which grows around it, mercifully covering
other things as well; men who have given
their bodies to their king and country, lay-
ing there forgotten except by their families
and the pals they soldiered with. Thank
Heavens the tall grass does mercifully cover
up this, and only fools try to uncover it.

We once found two shoes standing to-
gether pointing forward. Inside were the
ankle and foot bones of the man who had
left them there. We found them on the
ground of what is now one of the famous
earlier engagements of the war. They
were a Frenchman's, size six, slightly torn.
What a story they told to the glory of
France; the wonderful spirit and patriotism



that has carried her through all her
troubles. He was a little man, possibly a
Parisian, small and debonnair, proud of his
dainty feet, so neat, nay almost chic. And
then — war, bloody, thunderous war. Gone
at once was the little man's pride in his feet.
Gone were his boulevard ambitions. Si-
lently he slipped away from his beloved
Paris. A silent and fervent handshake here
and there, then the depot, then, the turning

The French advanced. The British ad-
vanced. The Germans retreated. And
then he met his fate, leaving there his little
feet. Where the rest of him went heaven
only knows. He died, though, happy —
very happy — going forward. He died as
thousands of others have died, thinking
they were winning the great victory. They
were, but the victory still is in the future.
We all go on, though, always thinking it
will soon end, hardly caring to credit the
German with the savagery, cunning and



deceit that time after time he has disclosed
to the world. He laughs at us and carries

And let me say now that unless we take
off our gloves to handle Mr. Boche, our
whole country will be No Man's Land.
And that wouldn't be nice!

Tommy and the grouch finished their ar-
gument and clamor for the periscope.
Finally they get it. All day long we look
for the Boche and never see him. Hiding
ourselves behind the trench walls, some of
us fling trench mortar bombs across the way
while the others watch the air. When a
black object is discovered tumbling over
and over as though the very air were loath
to hold it, there is a shout, "bomb right,"
"left" or "center," as the case may be. And
everyone scuttles for cover. In a second
there is a grand crash, then silence, and we
come out again.

It's a good game if they don't come too



A Canadian, I don't know who, one day
decided he didn't like the phrase No Man's
Land. It didn't sound right. It seemed to
put the Boche on a level with us and that
was an insult to all white men. The Cana-
dians had always fought fair, and like real
sportsmen. In short, the Canadians re-
named No Man's Land ''CANADA," and
wherever they go they dare the Boche to
step over his parapet and dispute the fact.

At night, everything is changed. Ground
that was deserted by day teems with ac-
tivity. Men come and go in large and small
parties; behind the lines for rations, water,
mail and the thousand and one things that
are necessary to trench life; in front of the
lines for adventure, for work, and to meet
whatever the night may bring.



It rather got on our nerves, this going up
to the line and going back again. We had
about decided all we were going to see of
the war was a couple of mud and sandbag
walls and some rusty wire. Just now we
were back in billets and were due for an-
other trip in. We were supposed to march
up the next day and everybody was grousing
when the whole battalion was paraded and
the sergeant major read an order.

"The following men will report to Lieu-
tenant ," it ran.

Then followed a list of names, quite a
few altogether, and mine was among them.
We were to stay out of the line this time
and practice for a raid!

In five minutes we were the heroes of the
battalion. Nothing was too good for us.
Down at the estaminet, where we foregath-
ered immediately, we had everything in the



house and it didn't cost us a centime. We
were to be the first of our lot to meet the
enemy hand to hand and the boys were de-
termined to make it the cause of a celebra-

It was now nearly four months that we
had been in Belgium. We had worked until
we nearly dropped trying to beat the mud
to it, and keep our trenches in shape. As
fast as we built, however, just a little faster
had our walls slid in on us until some of
us had been nearly drowned in the stuff.
We had been on working parties in No
Man's Land and we were in the way of
being veterans, yet never a German had we
seen, except one or two dead ones lying
out between the lines. We had thought
once or twice we had seen some at night —
huge shapes moving silently and mysteri-
ously in front of their wire — but face to face
with them we had never been, and we
wanted to be! Now our chance was



The younger men in the battalion looked
on us with awe and admiration, the older
members with envy, and we, modest heroes,
strutted the street and pretended to see no
one but our own band of picked braves.
In the estaminet we sat in little groups whis-
pering by ourselves when the celebration
had died down for want of francs to keep it

Men asked us questions, we looked su-
perior, answered evasively and they walked
away more impressed than ever. It was
a great life!

Our lieutenant soon got us busy, though,
working for the great night which had been
set about a week later. During the first
couple of days we worked in daylight get-
ting our formations, learning what we were
to do and how we were going to do it. There
was one thing we were going to do, and that
was get rid of a trench mortar which always
pounded blazes out of our parapet. The
Germans who ran that thing didn't know it,



but their time was running short, which
simply goes to show how really little mor-
tal man knows as to when his end is coming.

So we went over the ground in daylight,
threading our way through lanes of wire,
throwing dummy bombs, jumping into a
trench, running to certain places in it to look
for things we hoped to find. Among them
were entrances to dugouts, machine gun em-
placements, and that cursed trench mortar,
which daily sent its "minnies" whining
through the air. When we found these
places in our imagination, we did things
which, being well done, are certain to do
away with just those things we intended to

Again, we would simply walk over the
ground, memorizing every little detail, for
we were keen that our raid should be a
success. Then we finished our work by day
and turned night into day. All day we
would lay in billets, sleep, eat, write letters
and think of the fellows who had gone to



the line. Life was good to us. Here we
were, lounging around with nothing to do
until night; so we stretched, yawned, and
went to sleep again.

After supper, though, we would pile out,
march quietly across to a nearby field, and
line up in our formation ready to move.
A word whispered up and down the line,
''All right, boys," and then our officer
would slip away in the darkness, all of us
after him, each to his task. And those tasks
were many and varied. German wire had
to be cut— we couldn't expect that to be
done for us— a party had to look for dug-
outs and prisoners; another had to search
for our hated enemy, the trench mortar;
another, machine guns; still another must
help back our wounded; on all of us rested
the responsibility of getting back our own
killed, but we didn't think about that.
There weren't going to be any.

Away we went, crawling through the
darkness toward our objective. It was al-



most as exciting as the real thing. Of
course, we reached our objective. No trouble
at all. We destroyed everything in sight,
brought back about a hundred prisoners,
suffered no casualties, and turned into our
straw just as daylight broke.

So we went on till the last night, when
we tried it carrying any weapons we wanted.
One fellow was a butcher. He carried a
cleaver. Another was an old British Co-
lumbia logger. He had a hand ax. Another
was a lather. He had a lathing hatchet.
Some carried bayonets in their puttees.
Others carried revolvers and everybody car-
ried bombs. Captain Kidd's crew would
have looked like a lot of nursery pirates
compared to us, but as is generally the case,
our bark was worse than our bite. We
lacked the bloodthirsty spirit, but we were
keen to make good, which helped a lot.

The last practice augured badly for Mr.
Fritz. Everything went like clockwork.
We must have killed a million Boches that
night as we worked away at our job, and



away in the distance we could hear our
artillery firing in bursts of rapid fire. It
was nearly time for the game to start.

As we walked back to billets in the early
morning light, we were excited. To-night
would tell the tale. We never worried about
ourselves. We wanted the excitement of
the thing. It was for our battalion, for the
Canadians, that we worried. Would we
make a good job of it? Good enough to re-
flect credit on the rest of the troops? That
is what worries the "Tommy"; his regi-
ment. Rather would he die than disgrace

We tumbled into bed to sleep until noon.

"All out for dinner, fellows," and we
scrambled out of our straw for a hot meal.
Our lieutenant came around and told us we
would fall in at three o'clock ready to move
ofif. All soon enough the hour came and
we fell in. Our officer inspected us and we
moved away. Excited? Well, I should
say so!

I kept wondering how it would feel to



Stick a Boche. It wasn't exactly like killing
another man, but I wondered if I could do
it, and tried to imagine it. I couldn't, so
I stopped thinking about it. One fellow
expressed the feelings of us all.

'^I'm glad it's going to be dark, fellows.
I hate those devils, but they look like human
beings, even if they ain't," he said.

With that we passed the whole thing out
of our minds and sang 'Wever trouble
trouble till trouble troubles you," to relieve
our feelings. And we went blithely on our

At seven thirty we found ourselves in the
front line trench, in my own company sec-
tor, and that very trench mortar we were
going over for had blown in two of the dug-
outs during the afternoon.

^'Get those things to-night if you get noth-
ing else," our company commander said,
and we agreed to do it. As our dugouts
were blown in we had to sit in the trench
and as we sat there, word was passed quietly
down the line "friendly patrol out."


Our wire cutters had gone out, and our
adventure was started. When they came
back, if they did come back, then it would
be our turn.

Wire cutting is no easy job and takes a
long time. The fellows go out and crawl
through lanes in our own wire and on out
to the German wire. They carry wire cut-
ters and wear special gloves. It is hard
work and ticklish from the time they start
at the outer edge of the German wire until
they finish at the inner edge. This gener-
ally is about ten yards from the enemy

It calls for real nerve. The fellows crawl
to the point at which they intend to cut
through, take hold of a strand with their
cutters, place a heavily-gloved hand over
the whole thing, and then press down. It
is an anxious second. Will it make a
noise? No, not this time anyway. The
cutters sink through the strand quietly and
cleanly and the man pulls back one more
strand out of the way. But never must he


be pleased with temporary success and make
a false move. Just one slip, just one little
piece of carelessness, and the whole thing is

Failure, for those men out there, means
almost certain death and a swift one. They
will see for the space of a second the flash
of a machine gun or bomb. They will see
it for just a second, then they will pass away
and beyond. Those who stayed in the
trenches will see in the morning a few fig-
ures lying in and around the German wire.
That is failure. The raid is recalled and it
is impossible to carry it out for a few days,
as Fritz will flood No Man's Land at night
with flare lights until it is like daytime.

If we can judge by flares to-night, how-
ever, we are not to have a failure. They
only go up now and then, with their usual
regularity. Mr. Boche suspects nothing,
and we chuckle with delight. While we
chuckle we rub our hands and faces with
a mixture of charcoal and grease paint, plas-
tering it all over our skin, much to the



amusement of everybody. It is a good pro-
tection, though. While we are rubbing it
in, our brigadier comes up with part of his
staff. With him also is our colonel. They
both shake hands with us and wish us luck,
then pass on to the company headquarters
to wait till the raid is over. They are
anxious, too, to see what luck we have. And
all blackened up like a minstrel first part
we sit snickering and chattering.

The butcher fingers his cleaver lovingly
and the logger practices throwing his ax
into the wall of the trench opposite as we
wait for the wire cutters to come back.
They have been out a little more than four
hours now and it is nearly time for them to
report in. While we are talking in whis-
pers, they return, all except two or three
who are left to guard the lanes they have
cut, and we move off to the spot from which
we will leave our parapet. The signaling
station gets in touch with the artillery and
we crawl out into '^Canada."

Now a fellow may feel very brave when



he is in a trench, but once you get outside
it is all different. As we left our parapet
and dropped down in front waiting for the
rest to come out and get into position it
seemed to me that both those parapets rose
to a tremendous height, so high that we
would never be able to climb over either
one of them again. A flare went up from
the enemy line and I was confident they
could see us. Every place of concealment
seemed to vanish at the same second and
nothing was left for cover but skinny little
twigs here and there. And then the word
was whispered, 'lead on."

Some of the fellows who had been cut-
ting the wire were preceding us as guides.

I had elected to take a rifle with me and
as I dragged it along I thought of the old

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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 3 of 10)