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H. M. IMPERIAL ARMY. Frontispiece.




corporal or the 22d london battalion of the
queen's royal west surrey regiment


n on-refer T






Copyright, 1918,
By Little, Brown, and Compant.

All rights reserved

Published, January, 1918
Reprinted, January, 1918 (four times)

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Set up and electrotyped by J. S. Gushing Co., Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.

Presswork by S. J. Parkhill & Co., Boston, Mass., U.S.A.


To Marion A. Puttee, Southall, Middle-
sex, England, I Dedicate This Book as a
Token of Appreciation for All the Loving
Thoughts and Deeds Bestowed upon Me
WHEN I Was a Stranger in a Strange Land


T HAVE tried as an American in writing
this book to give the public a complete
view of the trenches and life on the Western
Front as it appeared to me, and also my im-
pression of conditions and men as I found
them. It has been a pleasure to write it,
and now that I have finished I am genuinely
sorry that I cannot go further. On the lec-
ture tour I find that people ask me questions,
and I have tried in this book to give in detail
many things about the quieter side of war
that to an audience would seem too tame.
I feel that the public want to know how the
soldiers live when not in the trenches, for all
the time out there is not spent in killing and
carnage. As in the case of all men in the
trenches, I heard things and stories that es-
pecially impressed me, so I have written them
as hearsay, not taking to myself credit as their
originator. I trust that the reader will find
as much joy in the cockney character as I did


and which I have tried to show the public;
let me say now that no finer body of men
than those Bermondsey boys of my battalion
could be found.

I think it fair to say that in compiling the
trench terms at the end of this book I have
not copied any war book, but I have given
in each case my own version of the words,
though I will confess that the idea and neces-
sity of having such a list sprang from reading
Sergeant Empey's "Over the Top." It would
be impossible to write a book that the people
would understand without the aid of such a

It is my sincere wish that after reading this
book the reader may have a clearer conception
of what this great world war means and what
our soldiers are contending with, and that it
may awaken the American people to the danger
of Prussianism so that when in the future there
is a call for funds for Liberty Loans, Red
Cross work, or Y. M. C. A., there will be no
slacking, for they form the real triangular
sign to a successful termination of this terrible
conflict. R. Derby Holmes.




I Joining the British Aemy
II Going In

III A Trench Raid

IV A Few Days' Rest in Billets
V Feeding the Toivimies

VI Hiking to Vimy Ridge

VII Fascination of Patrol Work .

VIII On the Go ....

IX First Sight of the Tanks

X Following the Tanks into Battle

XI Prisoners

XII I Become a Bomber .

XIII Back on the Somme Again

XIV The Last Time Over the Top
XV Bits of Blighty

XVI Suggestions for " Sammy "
Glossary of Ae]my Slang





















Corporal Holmes in the Uniform of the 22nd London
Battalion, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment,
H. M. Imperial Army .... Frontispiece

Reduced Facsimile of Discharge Certificate of Char

A Heavy Howitzer, Under Camouflage
Over the Top on a Raid .
Cooking Under Difficulties
Head-on View of a British Tank






Corporal Holmes with Staff Nurse and Another Pa-
tient, at Fulham Military Hospital, London, S.W. 190

Corporal Holmes with Company Office Force, at
Winchester, England, a Week Prior to Discharge 194



Joining the British Army

/^NCE, on the Somme in the fall of 1916,
^-^ when I had been over the top and was
being carried back somewhat disfigured but
still in the ring, a cockney stretcher bearer shot
this question at me :

"Hi sye, Yank. Wot th' bloody 'ell are
you in this bloomin' row for? Ayen't there
no trouble t' 'ome?"

And for the life of me I couldn't answer.
After more than a year in the British service
I could not, on the spur of the moment, say
exactly why I was there.

To be perfectly frank with myself and with
the reader I had no very lofty motives when


I took the King's shilling. When the great
war broke out, I was mildly sympathetic with
England, and mighty sorry in an indefinite
way for France and Belgium; but my sym-
pathies were not strong enough in any direc-
tion to get me into uniform with a chance of
being killed. Nor, at first, was I able to work
up any compelling hate for Germany. The
abstract idea of democracy did not figure in
my calculations at all.

However, as the war went on, it became ap-
parent to me, as I suppose it must have to
everybody, that the world was going through
one of its epochal upheavals ; and I figured
that with so much history in the making, any
unattached young man would be missing it if
he did not take a part in the big game.

I had the fondness for adventure usual in
young men. I liked to see the wheels go round.
And so it happened that, when the war was
about a year and a half old, I decided to get in
before it was too late.

On second thought I won't say that it was
purely love for adventure that took me across.
There may have been in the back of my head


a sneaking extra fondness for France, perhaps
instinctive, for I was born in Paris, although
my parents were American and I was brought
to Boston as a baby and have Hved here since.

Whatever my motives for joining the
British army, they didn't have time to crystal-
lize until I had been wounded and sent to
Blighty, which is trench slang for England.
While recuperating in one of the pleasant
places of the English country-side, I had time
to acquire a perspective and to discover that I
had been fighting for democracy and the
future safety of the world. I think that my
experience in this respect i is like that of most
of the young Americans who have volunteered
for service under a foreign flag.

I decided to get into the big war game early
in 1916. My first thought was to go into the
ambulance service, as I knew several men in
that work. One of them described the driver's
life about as follows. He said :

"The blesses curse you because you jolt
them. The doctors curse you because you
don't get the blesses in fast enough. The
Transport Service curse you because you get


in the way. You eat standing up and don't
sleep at all. You're as likely as anybody to
get killed, and all the glory you get is the War
Cross, if you're lucky, and you don't get a
single chance to kill a Hun."

That settled the ambulance for me. I
hadn't wanted particularly to kill a Hun until
it was suggested that I mightn't. Then I
wanted to slaughter a whole division.

So I decided on something where there
would be fighting. And having decided, I
thought I would "go the whole hog" and
work my way across to England on a horse

One day in the first part of February I went,
at what seemed an early hour, to an office on
Commercial Street, Boston, where they were
advertising for horse tenders for England.
About three hundred men were earlier than I.
It seemed as though every beach-comber and
patriot in New England was trying to get
across. I didn't get the job, but filed my ap-
plication and was lucky enough to be signed
on for a sailing on February 22 on the steam
ship Cambrian, bound for London.




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We spent the morning of Washington's
Birthday loading the horses. These govern-
ment animals were selected stock and full of
ginger. They seemed to know that they were
going to France and resented it keenly. Those
in my care seemed to regard my attentions as
a personal affront.

We had a strenuous forenoon getting the
horses aboard, and sailed at noon. After we
had herded in the livestock, some of the of-
ficers herded up the herders. I drew a pink
slip with two numbers on it, one showing the
compartment where I was supposed to sleep,
the other indicating my bunk.

That compartment certainly was a glory-
hole. Most of the men had been drunk the
night before, and the place had the rich,
balmy fragrance of a water-front saloon. In-
cidentally there was a good deal of unauthor-
ized and undomesticated livestock. I made a
limited acquaintance with that pretty, playful
little creature, the "cootie," who was to be-
come so familiar in the trenches later on. He
wasn't called a cootie aboard ship, but he was
the same bird.


Perhaps the less said about that trip across
the better. It lasted twenty-one days. We
fed the animals three times a day and cleaned
the stalls once on the trip. I got chewed up
some and stepped on a few times. Altogether
the experience was good intensive training for
the trench life to come; especially the bunks.
Those sleeping quarters sure were close and

We landed in London on Saturday night
about nine-thirty. The immigration inspec-
tors gave us a quick examination and we were
turned back to the shipping people, who paid
us off, — two pounds, equal to about ten dol-
lars real change.

After that we rode on the train half an hour
and then marched through the streets, darkened
to fool the Zeps. Around one o'clock we
brought up at Thrawl Street, at the lodgings
where we were supposed to stop until we were
started for home.

The place where we were quartered was a
typical London doss house. There were forty
beds in the room with mine, all of them occu-
pied. All hands were snoring, and the fellow


in the next cot was going it with the cut-out
wide open, breaking all records. Most of the
beds sagged like a hammock. Mine humped
up in the middle like a pile of bricks.

I was up early and was directed to the place
across the way where we were to eat. It was
labeled "Mother Wolf's. The Universal Pro-
vider." She provided just one meal of weak
tea, moldy bread, and rancid bacon for me.
After that I went to a hotel. I may remark
in passing that horse tenders, going or coming
or in between whiles, do not live on the fat
of the land.

I spent the day — it was Sunday — seeing
the sights of Whitechapel, Middlesex Street
or Petticoat Lane, and some of the slums.
Next morning it was pretty clear to me that
two pounds don't go far in the big town.
I promptly boarded the first bus for Trafalgar
Square. The recruiting office was just down
the road in Whitehall at the old Scotland Yard

I had an idea when I entered thaT recruit-
ing office that the sergeant would receive me
with open arms. He didn't. Instead he looked


me over with unqualified scorn and spat out,
"Yank, ayen't ye?"

And I in my innocence briefly answered,

"We ayen't tykin' no nootrals," he said, with
a sneer. And then: "Better go back to Ha-
merika and 'elp Wilson write 'is blinkin' notes."

Well, I was mad enough to poke that ser-
geant in the eye. But I didn't. I retired
gracefully and with dignity.

At the door another sergeant hailed me,
whispering behind his hand, "Hi sye, my tie.
Come around in the mornin'. Hi'll get ye in."
And so it happened.

Next day my man was waiting and marched
me boldly up to the same chap who had refused
me the day before.

" 'Ere's a recroot for ye, Jim," says my friend.

Jim never batted an eye. He began to
"awsk" questions and to fill out a blank.
When he got to the birthplace, my guide cut
in and said, "Canada."

The only place I knew in Canada was Campo-
bello Island, a place where we camped one
summer, and I gave that. I don't think that


anything but rabbits was ever born on Campo-
bello, but it went. For that matter anything
went. I discovered afterward that the ser-
geant who had captured me on the street got
five bob (shillings) for me.

The physical examination upstairs was elab-
orate. They told me to strip, weighed me, and
said I was fit. After that I was taken in to
an officer — a real officer this time — who
made me put my hand on a Bible and say yes
to an oath he rattled off. Then he told me
I was a member of the Royal Fusiliers, gave
me two shillings, sixpence and ordered me to
report at the Horse Guards Parade next day.
I was in the British army, — just like that !

I spent the balance of the day seeing the
sights of London, and incidentally spending
my coin. When I went around to the Horse
Guards next morning, two hundred others,
new rookies like myself, were waiting. An
officer gave me another two shillings, sixpence.
I began to think that if the money kept coming
along at that rate the British army might turn
out a good investment. It didn't.

That morning I was sent out to Hounslow


Barracks, and three days later was transferred
to Dover with twenty others. I was at Dover
a little more than two months and completed
my training there.

Our barracks at Dover was on the heights
of the cliffs, and on clear days we could look
across the Channel and see the dim outlines
of France. It was a fascination for all of us
to look away over there and to wonder what
fortunes were to come to us on the battle
fields of Europe. It was perhaps as well that
none of us had imagination enough to visualize
the things that were ahead.

I found the rookies at Dover a jolly, compan-
ionable lot, and I never found the routine irk-
some. We were up at five-thirty, had cocoa
and biscuits, and then an hour of physical
drill or bayonet practice. At eight came break-
fast of tea, bacon, and bread, and then we
drilled until twelve. Dinner. Out again on
the parade ground until three thirty. After
that we were free.

Nights we would go into Dover and sit
around the "pubs" drinking ale, or "ayle"
as the cockney says it.


After a few weeks, when we were hardened
somewhat, they began to inflict us with the
torture known as "night ops." That means
going out at ten o'clock under full pack, hik-
ing several miles, and then "manning" the
trenches around the town and returning to
barracks at three a.m.

This wouldn't have been so bad if we had
been excused parades the following day. But
no. We had the same old drills except the
early one, but were allowed to "kip" until

In the two months I completed the mus-
ketry course, was a good bayonet man, and
was well grounded in bombing practice. Be-
sides that I was as hard as nails and had
learned thoroughly the system of British dis-

I had supposed that it took at least six
months to make a soldier, — in fact had been
told that one could not be turned out who
would be ten per cent eflScient in less than that
time. That old theory is all wrong. Modern
warfare changes so fast that the only thing
that can be taught a man is the basic prin-


ciples of discipline, bombing, trench warfare,
and musketry. Give him those things, a well-
conditioned body, and a baptism of fire, and
he will be right there with the veterans, doing
his bit.

Two months was all our crowd got at any rate,
and they were as good as the best, if I do say it.

My training ended abruptly with a furlough
of five days for Embarkation Leave, that is,
leave before going to France. This is a sort
of good-by vacation. Most fellows realize
fully that it may be their last look at Blighty,
and they take it rather solemnly. To a
stranger without friends in England I can
imagine that this Embarkation Leave would
be either a mighty lonesome, dismal affair, or
a stretch of desperate, homesick dissipation.
A chap does want to say good-by to some one
before he goes away, perhaps to die. He wants
to be loved and to have some one sorry that
he is going.

I was invited by one of my chums to spend
the leave with him at his home in Southall,
Middlesex. His father, mother and sister wel-
comed me in a way that made me know it


was my home from tlie minute I entered the
door. Thej^ took me into their hearts with a
simple hospitahty and whole-souled kindness
that I can never forget. I was a stranger in
a strange land and they made me one of their
own. I shall never be able to repay all the
loving thoughts and deeds of that family and
shall remember them while I live. My chum's
mother I call Mother too. It is to her that I
have dedicated this book.

After my delightful few days of leave,
things moved fast. I was back in Dover just
two days when I, with two hundred other
men, was sent to Winchester, Here we were
notified that we were transferred to the Queen's
Royal West Surrey Regiment.

This news brought a wild howl from the
men. They wanted to stop with the Fusiliers.
It is part of the British system that every man
is taught the traditions and history of his
regiment and to know that his is absolutely
the best in the whole army. In a surprisingly
short time they get so they swear by their
own regiment and by their officers, and they
protest bitterly at a transfer.


Personally I didn't care a rap. I had early
made up my mind that I was a very small
pebble on the beach and that it was up to me
to obey orders and keep my mouth shut.

On June 17, some eighteen hundred of us
were moved down to Southampton and put
aboard the transport for Havre. The next
day we were in France, at Harfleur, the central
training camp outside Havre.

We were supposed to undergo an intensive
training at Harfleur in the various forms of
gas and protection from it, barbed wire and
methods of construction of entanglements,
musketry, bombing, and bayonet fighting.

Harfleur was a miserable place. They re-
fused to let us go in town after drill. Also I
managed to let myself in for something that
would have kept me in camp if town leave had
been allowed.

The first day there was a call for a volunteer
for musketry instructor. I had qualified and
jumped at it. When I reported, an old Scotch
sergeant told me to go to the quartermaster
for equipment. I said I already had full
equipment. Whereupon the sergeant laughed


a rumbling Scotch laugh and told me I had to
go into kilts, as I was assigned to a Highland

I protested with violence and enthusiasm,
but it didn't do any good. They gave me a
dinky little pleated petticoat, and when I
demanded breeks to wear underneath, I got
the merry ha ha. Breeks on a Scotchman?
Never !

Well, I got into the fool things, and I felt
as though I was naked from ankle to wishbone.
I couldn't get used to the outfit. I am naturally
a modest man. Besides, my architecture was
never intended for bare-leg effects. I have
no dimples in my knees.

So I began an immediate campaign for trans-
fer back to the Surreys. I got it at the end of
ten days, and with it came a hurry call from
somewhere at the front for more troops.


Going In

rp^HE excitement of getting away from
camp and the knowledge that we were
soon to get into the thick of the big game
pleased most of us. We were glad to go.
At least we thought so.

Two hundred of us were loaded into side-
door Pullmans, forty to the car. It was a
kind of sardine or Boston Elevated effect,
and by the time we reached Rouen, twenty-
four hours later, we had kinks in our legs and
corns on our elbows. Also we were hungry,
having had nothing but bully beef and bis-
cuits. We made "char", which is trench
slang for tea, in the station, and after two
hours moved up the line again, this time in
real coaches.

Next night we were billeted at Barlin —
don't get that mixed up with Berlin, it's not
the same — in an abandoned convent within


range of the German guns. The roar of
artillery was continuous and sounded pretty

Now and again a shell would burst near by
with a kind of hollow "spung", but for some
reason we didn't seem to mind. I had ex-
pected to get the shivers at the first sound
of the guns and was surprised when I woke
up in the morning after a solid night's sleep.

A message came down from the front trenches
at daybreak that we were wanted and wanted
quick. We slung together a dixie of char and
some bacon and bread for breakfast, and
marched around to the " quarters ", where they
issued "tin hats", extra "ammo", and a
second gas helmet. A good many of the men
had been out before, and they did the cus-
tomary "grousing" over the added load.

The British Tommy growls or grouses over
anything and everything. He's never happy
unless he's unhappy. He resents especially
having anything officially added to his pack,
and you can't blame him, for in full equip-
ment he certainly is all dressed up like a pack


After the issue we were split up into four
lots for the four companies of the battalion,
and after some "wangling" I got into Com-
pany C, where I stopped all the time I was
in France. I was glad, because most of my
chums were in that unit.

We got into our packs and started up the
line immediately. As we neared the lines we
were extended into artillery formation, that
is, spread out so that a shell bursting in the
road would inflict fewer casualties.

At Bully-Grenay, the point where we entered
the communication trenches, guides met us and
looked us over, commenting most frankly and
freely on our appearance. They didn't seem
to think we would amount to much, and said
so. They agreed that the "bloomin' Yank"
must be a "bloody fool" to come out there.
There were times later when I agreed with

It began to rain as we entered the communi-
cation trench, and I had my first taste of mud.
That is literal, for with mud knee-deep in a
trench just wide enough for two men to pass
you get smeared from head to foot.


Incidentally, as we approached nearer the
front, I got my first smell of the dead. It is
something you never get away from in the
trenches. So many dead have been buried
so hastily and so lightly that they are con-
stantly being uncovered by shell bursts. The
acrid stench pervades everything, and is so
thick you can fairly taste it. It makes nearly
everybody deathly sick at first, but one be-
comes used to it as to anything else.

This communication trench was over two
miles long, and it seemed like twenty. We
finally landed in a support trench called "Me-
chanics" (every trench has a name, like a
street), and from there into the first-line

I have to admit a feeling of disappointment
in that first trench. I don't know what I
expected to see, but what I did see was just
a long, crooked ditch with a low step running
along one side, and with sandbags on top.
Here and there was a muddy, bedraggled
Tommy half asleep, nursing a dirty and muddy
rifle on "sentry go." Everything was very
quiet at the moment — no rifles popping, as


I had expected, no bullets flying, and, as it
happened, absolutely no shelling in the whole

I forgot to say that we had come up by
daylight. Ordinarily troops are moved at
night, but the communication trench from
Bully-Grenay was very deep and was pro-
tected at points by little hills, and it was
possible to move men in the daytime.

Arrived in the front trench, the sergeant-
major appeared, crawling out of his dug-out
— the usual place for a sergeant-major —
and greeted us with,

"Keep your nappers down, you rooks.

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Online LibraryRobert Derby HolmesA Yankee in the trenches → online text (page 1 of 10)