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 4 of 10)
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stories I had read as a boy of Buffalo Bill,
and almost laughed out loud when I re-
membered one in which the old scout had
shot and then scalped seventeen Indians in
one fight. Luckily I caught myself just in



time, and concentrated all my attention to
crawling. How I hated-those cursed flares,
though. Every now and then they would go
sailing fifty or sixty feet into the air with
their hissing noise and we would freeze to
the ground.

We didn't dare look up to see where it
was going to light. We didn't dare move,
and as I lay there, my heart beating so hard
it almost caused the earth to tremble, I
imagined that ball of fire was going to light
in the middle of my back.

I remembered the story of the little Spar-
tan boy who had taken the fox to school and
let it gnaw his breast away, and I won-
dered if I could lie still and let that light
burn through my back without shrieking.
But I decided I might just as well yell,
as the Boches would smell me burning and
suspect something anyway. Then the light
landed — but not on me — died out with a
splutter, and we crawled forward again.

A few yards nearer — it is getting mighty


exciting now. We are passing through their
wire. Right ahead is their parapet, a wall
of mud. Not a sign of a living being. We
might as well have been alone in the world.
It is fascinating sport. Just on the other
side, only a few yards away, is the enemy,
and he is due for an awful fright in a few

At that instant a flare shoots up, so close
to us we can see the sparks from the dis-
charge. We flatten ourselves, hoping the
ground will swallow the lot. But even as
the flare exploded the air became full of a
roaring noise, ending with a crash in front
of us. Our box barage had opened. The
timing was perfect. We were in luck and
Mr. Boche was out of it, for we were in
that trench before he had time to wink.

The one who sent up that flare — well, he
never knew what hit him. The logger
mounted the parapet just where the flare
had gone up.

Don't ask me what I thought as we



jumped in. I don't know. The whole
thing was a blaze of color, a crash of shells
and German S. O. S. signals in the air, as
I made for the trench mortar. My mind
centered on that one thing in front of me,
somewhere in that trench. I merely felt
the presence of those two trench walls.
Dimly, vaguely, I knew I was in the Ger-
man lines, and believe me or not, a great
feeling of joy surged over me. Mad ex-
citement possessed me and all around the
roar and crash of artillery added to it when,
Heavens! There was a German, right at
the corner of a traverse. He was helmet-
less and without a rifle, but worse yet, he
was carrying one of their stick bombs.

It flashed into my mind, ''you or he. Not
you!" and I jumped for him.

Before he could pull the string on that
bomb w^e went to the bottom of the trench
together. It was rotten, but the instinct of
self preservation is always uppermost in the
human mind.



Before I could get up, the other fellows
rushed over me, headed for the trench mor-
tar, and then I ran after them.

Don't think I forgot that German. I
never have, and I never will. A memory
is one of the curses on those who indulge
in war.

Then, though everything was confusion,
instinctively I went where I should have
gone. Instinctively all of us did what we
were trained to do.

The trench mortar was destroyed effi-
ciently, when a green light flashed up into
the night. It was our signal to return, and
we started back the way we had come. We
passed some engineers standing at some dark
shafts which went down into the ground.
The stairs led into German dugouts, and
just as we passed there was a muffled roar,
the earth heaved for a second, then subsided
again and the staircase disappeared.

We ran on until we saw our officer stand-
ing above us. He reached down his hand,



we grasped it, and he helped us out, saying

as he did, "Got six of the Boches.

Scoot for home." And we scooted.

There another officer was waiting, jump-
ing up and down with excitement. At the
same time he was trying to take down our
names as we reported in.

"Got six prisoners. Report at battalion
headquarters in reserve," he told us as he
continued his jumping up and down.

Away we went down the trench, happy —
nervously happy, so that we spoke in an
unnatural tone. We had been in hand-to-
hand conflict with the enemy and had not
been afraid. That was what pleased us the
most. We had met our crisis and come
through without flinching and with credit
to ourselves, our battalion, and if you want
to carry it that far, to our country. And by
good, clean, fair methods of fighting.

By the time we entered headquarters nor-
mal feeling took possession of us and we



The brigadier and the colonel were there
and shook hands again with each one of us.
Then while we waited for the rest of our
crowd to come in the men in reserve gath-
ered tightly about us. ''Did you kill any-
body?" ''How does it feel?" "Did you get
any souvenirs?" "What were their trenches
like?" and a million other questions that we
couldn't answer.

Our officer came in and reported to the
general "all in, sir. One casualty, Private
. Six prisoners captured, one ma-
chine gun destroyed, enemy trench mortar
emplacement gone."

"Very good work, sir. Take your men
to billets. I congratulate you all," said the

We marched away, a weird looking lot.
The sweat running off our faces had left
streaks of dirty grey on them. Our hands
and clothes were masses of mud. The
butcher was gone, he and his cleaver. It is
he who was the casualty. He had gone mad



with excitement and chased a Boche, still
madder with excitement, into the edge of
our barrage, just as a shell exploded. For
a second their figures had been silhouetted
in the flame, then blackness. Now as we
trooped away from headquarters to our de-
tail camp the line we had left was a crash-
ing mass of shells. All our batteries were
firing and the Germans were retaliating on
our lines so that over it all hung a glare as
of a city afire. We, however, satisfied with
ourselves, turned our heads from it and our
thoughts toward billets.

The Bullring was not a jaunting place
for matadors. Far from it. It was as
bloody, though, as a Spanish arena after a
matinee. It was a bit of badly mussed
ground toward which our friend Fritz,
across the wire, with malicious intent, dis-
charged men, bullets, gas, grenades and
bombs of all sizes and descriptions up to
and including ''Minnies" and ''sausages."
And we didn't have to wave a red flag for
them either.

It also received shells of all calibres and
from all ranges, not to mention the constant,
undivided attention of a highly skilled lot
of snipers who patiently waited until some
of our people worked up a fatal curiosity
for "just one second's peep over."

In return for all this we discharged rifles,
machine guns and bombs forward toward



Fritz and our battered and mutilated pals
backward, down the trail to Blighty.

This was the Bullring — one of the many
peculiar places on that long, sinuous line
that stretches the hundreds of miles from
Switzerland to the sea. There it was, and
there it stuck, like a huge boil on a man's
neck, running out in a half circle of about
two hundred yards to within twenty- five
yards of the Boches, and then dropping
gradually back until it reached the more
respectable distance of perhaps a hundred
yards from our enemy.

Here in this Bullring, in nine different
groups of two men each, eighteen men sat
night and day playing even a better game
than poker. Truly enough was ^'the sky the
limit." Some won, some lost. Those who
won, after days of it, staggered out through
the mud when relieved and made for billets
behind the line, and rest. And they would
think no more of the Bullring.

Those who lost; well, some went in their



sleep, never knowing; others, even when
awake, went, never knowing. For the Bull-
ring treated you well in this, that you went
quick and sure. There was no uncertainty.

The Bullring was so bad, in fact, that only
the sentries lived in it. Their reliefs stayed
a hundred yards in the rear until time for
them to go up. The reliefs were two men
to a post, twelve hours on and twelve hours
off. We on the post arranged between our-
selves how much each fellow should do.

So, one bright night, on our next trip into
the line, we found ourselves in this trench
behind the Bullring, shivering with the
cold, while our officer got us ready to go up
and relieve the sentries on duty. We were
to have the night shift, little Tommy and I.
We had to take eight and nine posts, the two
furtherest away, because we were short of

A few minutes later, leaving our packs
behind us and taking only haversacks, rifles
and ammunition. Tommy and I started off



to find eight and nine posts. We had never
done duty here before, but we had heard of
the place. There was not a man on our
sector but had heard of it.

We struggled through the mud of a com-
munication trench until it turned off to the
right and left. We took the turn to the left
and passed number one post. From here on
we stumbled along, and blacker than black
it had become. Every so often we were
challenged quietly, but with an intensity
that brought a quick reply from us. It was
all business, this close to the enemy, and no

Once we stopped for breath and stood
long enough to whisper to each other a sul-
phuric opinion on the appearance of the
Bullring. Parapets were down, firing plat-
forms were down; everything was down.
What hadn't slid in, had been blown in, and
that not long before if we could judge by
the smell of powder in the air. While we
were grunting our way through a particu-



larly nasty spot we rounded a corner and
were challenged for the eighth time.

^Who's that?"


"What battalion?"

" battalion."

"Righto, mates. Glad to see you. Did
number eight post challenge?"

"Thought you were number eight," we

"No, I'm nine. Guess eight musta died.
He and his partner got a 'Minnie' in there
at 'stand to.' One snuffed right out. Other
guy was pretty badly hit, but thought he
could stick it till relief. War's hell, ain't
it? My mate's in the corner there. Hogged
one o' their bombs this afternoon. Well, so
long, fellows. We're comin' back for those
boys before morning."

And he was gone, leaving us to — we
couldn't see what, it was so dark. We
waited for the enemy's flares to go up and
show us. With the first light we saw the


sentry sitting in the corner, the mud reach-
ing nearly to his shoulders. He was wait-
ing for his pals to come and bury him, but
they never did. Anyway, the back of the
trench slid in on top of him a few minutes
later and we saw him no more.

Another flare convinced us of the impos-
sibility of sleep, so Tommy and I agreed to
keep watch together. Owing to the scarcity
of labor, we decided that the best way was
to patrol both posts, firing here and there
between them and thus attempt to persuade
Fritz there were lots of us waiting for him.
We started for number eight to open our
campaign and in going through the trench.
Tommy's foot touched the body of one of
the day sentries. We scratched around in
the mud until we could get a good grip on
his body to pull him out. It was ghastly
work, and we shook until our teeth chat-
tered, but we tugged and we pulled until
we brought him to the surface. The man
had been buried in the mud. We couldn't


see his face, nor where ^'he had got it." He
was heavy, though, and we let him rest on
the top of the muck until we regained our
breath. But he started to sink again as
though he liked the soft bed from which
we had dragged him. So, toiling and puf-
fing, we again caught hold and rolled him
up, over the back of the trench, to lie there
until we should have time to bury him. We
looked for the other fellow, but he was
under a pile of sandbags. He didn't hinder
our movements and we let him be.

Our house now was as clean as we could
make it, and we settled down to routine.
We moved from one point to another,
firing, then stood in the mud shaking with
cold, whispering to each other of friends
who had gone, of home, or when the war
would end. That was in 1915. We said
the end would come in the autumn of '16.

Everything might have been lovely in our
garden, but even now when I think of it I
shudder. When we searched for cigarettes,


they were there all right, but— oh! the
agony of it, they were spoiled by the mud
which had soaked through our clothes. The
delicious, soothing consolation of a smoke
was denied us. How it hurt! My watch
said three o'clock. From then to morning
without a smoke is terrible punishment
when you are in sticky waters above your
knees and your job needs your attention
every minute.

Morning came at last, however, and the
report went in from our O. C. ''Night nor-
mal." We dropped back to our sleeping
quarters, a tot of rum, breakfast, and a
smoke. Then Tommy and I tumbled into
our sandbag bedroom and the war knew us
no more until the late afternoon. That
found us rested and more conscious of the
scamperings of the rats. One, nibbling at
Tommy's shoe at the place where it covered
his pet corn, roused him from his slumbers
into a temper fearful to contemplate and
that boded ill for the rat. But Tommy



didn't catch him, for we were both rolled
in the same blanket. I was tossed out, how-
ever, during his struggles to murder the
elusive rodent. I submit that that is not
the most pleasant way to be wakened. The
rat was gone and Tommy was mad. I had
lost my blanket and I was mad. We said
many things to each other by way of break-
fast and then sat with our backs against the
wall, looking out through a little hole to a
gray waste of mud and dripping water. We
began again, almost in one breath, but this
time we told ourselves every disagreeable
thought we ever had had concerning the
war and everyone having the least thing to
do with it.

Our speech was rudely interrupted by the
sergeant, who put his head through a hole,
asked us the name of our hotel, and would
we mind going to the Bullring for duty.
Being only privates, of course we didn't
mind. At least, we said we didn't. Any-
way, darkness again found us making our
way up to the old post.



We arrived to find only one sentry. As
usual, during the day his pal's bump of
curiosity had grown larger than his bump
of discretion, and he had ^'gone west." He
had peeped over the top for ''just one sec-
ond." The other man had been alone with
him for most of the day and was not loath
to leave.

So our night began.

Things were quiet — it was a compara-
tively quiet part of the line. We fired an
occasional shot, now from here, now from
there, and then Fritz, exasperated beyond
control, would send over a bomb or two.
But our luck held, and by constantly travel-
ing back and forth we managed to dodge

In patroling, though, we had to continu-
ally pass the dead sentry, and in all the
blackness, that man's face stood out against
the background like a searchlight. Not be-
cause it was white, and clean, for it wasn't.
But we knew it was there, and we couldn't
keep our eyes away. We tried to cover it



up, but each time we tried the wind would
blow away the covering, and there the face
stayed, shining out in the darkness until it
began to sap our nerve. We argued
whether we should smear it with mud and
finally we agreed to, but at the last moment
we hadn't the courage.

In desperation, we decided to bury him.
So while Tommy ran our own little cam-
paign I dug just behind the trench until I
was tired. Then Tommy dug, and I pa-
troled. While we were still busy with the
entrenching tools our officer came along
'Visiting." It was in no sense a social call.
He just wanted to be sure we were on the
job. When we told him what we were
doing, he pitched in and helped us, borrow-
ing the entrenching tool of the one patrol-

In a little while we got the hole about
three feet deep. This was the best we could
do, and we were just hoisting the dead man
over the rear wall of the trench when the



Boches spotted us. Then we had to lay off
for about half an hour. Our ofHcer sat
there in the trench and chatted with us
while the machine guns played "Taps" over
our heads for the man we were waiting to

Finally we crept out again and rolled him
into his hole, pushing the dirt in on him.
We left him there with nothing to mark
his resting place. We had nothing to mark
it with.

Tommy and I were fagged out and when
our officer left us with a cheery "Good
night," we built up a little seat of sandbags
just in the middle of the two posts and sat
down to rest and chat, every now and then
walking to either side and firing a shot just
to let Fritz know we were there. We had
been sitting quietly for a little while, talk-
ing in whispers. Flares from the enemy
were sent up regularly and that told us there
was no mischief brewing.

All of a sudden, Fritz turned loose with



his field batteries. The shells went whiz-
zing over our heads, bursting just a little in
our rear. We grabbed each other. The
next second there were half a dozen or more
splashes in the mud at number nine post.

'We're raided," flashed through both our
minds. We jumped to the corner, bayonets
just at the edge, and waited either for a
bomb, or for a Boche to show himself. I
could hear Tommy's heart beat and I know
he heard mine, but that was all — not
another sound! We crept around the cor-
ner. Nothing in sight. We crept to our
old seat. Still nothing to be seen. Cau-
tiously we went to number nine. The only
thing in the trench was the parapet. Not
liking its elevation and the weight of lead
it carried, it slid down and caused the splash
we heard.

The sudden firing we discovered later
was due to too much noise made by our
horse transport. The Boches had detected
it and treated it as they do all unusual



Another hour and quiet reigned again, so
Tommy and I smoked and talked until
dawn and relief.

During the day orders came for winter
relief schedule to go into effect and we were
relieved that night.



Going into the trenches is one thing.
Staying there is something quite different,
but coming out is by far the most exciting
of all to the old foot slogger. He has got
"in," done his tour, come through it all in
the pink, and now it is up to him to get
out and in the process keep his skin whole,
if it is possible.

It is ticklish work to make a relief and
calls for all a soldiers ingenuity, but one
hour's glorious swim through the mud and
he is safe behind the lines with six days
in comfortable billets ahead of him. That
hour is a tense one, however, especially in
winter. During the long season of cold
and snow and rain it takes all the platoon's
time to keep the fire trenches in condition
without bothering about communication
trenches. The result is that all movements



must be made on top of the ground with
every possibility of discovery.

Greatly elated over getting out before we
had expected it, we threw on our equipment,
looked frantically here and there for mis-
placed gas helmets, left in a moment of
carelessness on a firing platform or in some
dugout, dived into a corner for some for-
gotten bit of the kit or searched the muddy
bottom of the trench for a tool dropped
while we were cutting up the duck walk or
notice boards to make a fire.

The order came down the line to move
off in single file in a sort of follow the leader
game. It was impossible to locate all the
stuff we had brought in with us, so with
some of us minus parts of equipment that
old John Bull had paid good money for, we
started off ''on the top," speeded on oufway
by the chaps w^ho had relieved us.

We moved with wings on our heels, now
that the responsibility of holding that piece
of line was off our shoulders. The pace in



front of us, if anything, was too slow, as
panting and puffing we pulled one leg after
the other through the muck and mire to-
ward a little ridge over which we had to
make our way. While crossing this ridge,
which required about five minutes, we were
in plain view of the enemy during daylight.
At night we always chanced it and the five
minutes. It would take twenty minutes fol-
lowing the contours of the ground and keep-
ing out of sight. The few minutes we were
chancing the ridge, though, had the twenty
minutes beat silly as far as we were con-

We were struggling for the ridge and we
had just reached the middle of the slope
where we were in plain view of old Fritz
when something cracked.

It was one of those inexplicable things
which sometimes happen. For some reason,
Fritz^s suspicions were aroused. Maybe
our last raid had made him nervous. Up
shot Very lights and flares by the dozen.



Some of them were parachute lights, the
latter hanging in the air like arc lamps, and
they seemed to glory in what they exposed
to those lynx-eyed machine gunners.

There was no camouflage for us. There
we were in plain view, perfect targets.
There was no dilly-dallying. We flopped
in the mud where we stood. You might
wonder why we didn't make a dash for it
and cross the crest, but with twelve-inch
mud and a fifty-pound pack it sounds easier
than it is. The flash of rifle and machine
gun fire, the flare of exploding bombs, with
the occasional crash of a bursting shell made
a vivid streak of light right along the line.
A poet, an artist, or, beyond all, a war cor-
respondent, might have regarded it as a
majestic spectacle. To us, it was just plain,
ordinary hell. You see, things were all
coming our way. Nothing was going back.

We burrowed just like hogs into that
mud, packs hunched over our heads with
an ostrich idea that so long as our heads


were covered we were perfectly safe. We
were in the mud, though, and the longer
we staj^ed the further in we got. It oozed
through to the skin and half covered us
until, lying there, we could put out our
tongues and lap up the porridge like a cat.

After awhile our artillery spoke up and
sent over some high explosive shrapnel.
This occurred, however, only after the com-
mander who had relieved us telephoned in
to battery headquarters that we had just
gone out and must be stuck some place.
H. E. shrapnel is anything but pleasant stuff
and since not all the Boches are marble
headed the racket died down as quickly
as it had commenced, except for a spas-
modic squirt from a machine gun occa-

We were able to disregard such a little
thing as a nervous machine gunner and we
began to work ourselves out of our holes.
We found by that time we were in pretty
deep — so deep it required a little coaxing to



reach the surface. We tried to push our-
selves out, but it was useless exertion, because
with no solids below for support, our arms
sank right to the shoulders. Then some one
had an inspiration and rolled out just like
a horse rolls when he has been turned into
the pasture. So down the line came the tip :
''Roll out and lead on."

Some of the boys couldn't roll out. They
had left us for a better place than billets.
Their rest would be eternal, but it took
friendly kicks and curses to find this out.
In five cases there was no answer. In three
there were groans. These three chaps our
stretcher bearers looked after. The others
we stripped of their equipment and divided
the load between us, all excepting ten of the
biggest men who volunteered to get these
five boys out on the road so a horse trans-
port could take them back for a decent
burial. It required almost superhuman
efifort, but we managed, and an hour later
found us on the old familiar cobble-stoned



road headed for billets at a pace that would

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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 4 of 10)