In the Front Trenches
IRISH NATIONALIST’S FIRST EXPERIENCES UNDER FIRE.
- RAVAGES OF WAR.
I have got my company to the cross roads where we rendezvous before we enter the trenches, and, being there well before our time, we rest for a few minutes while waiting for our guides to comes up. We find in a few seconds that we are right in the midst of a British battery of artillery at work. We see how deftly their guns are handled, in what a workman-like way our gunners go about their duties, how speedily one shell is made to follow another, and how admirably protected from aeroplane observation are the guns and the men who work them. The work is hard, but Tommy never minds this. Duty and discipline he understands, and for the rest he takes whatever comes his way.
The four platoons of my company are now handed over to their separate guides, and I go forward with the leading platoon. Shortly we are passing through a village for ever made famous in the history of this period. Here the most desperate encounters in the whole war took place between the French and the Germans, when the former beat their hereditary antagonists from one house to another until they finally drove them out of the place altogether.
You have to see this village as it now is – broken and in ruins, with not a roof intact in any street or byway, with the marks of shot and shell and destruction and devastation everywhere, with church and chateau alike stripped of their beauty and fair proportions – to understand what the ravages of war mean, how pitiless it is, how it defaces and destroys the patient labour of generations of men, the industry of once happy communities, and how it roots out and scatters family bliss and social affection and all the sanctities and tenderness of civilised existence.
God knows how many broken homes and blighted hearts the Huns have made in this one spot of French soil alone ! There is now a British cemetery in the centre of it, filled with the graves of many a hero, where, in years to come, pilgrims from the shores of England, Ireland, and Scotland will come to honour those who died that their country may be free.
Our guide bids us to push along – the sooner we get into the communication trench the better. Out in the open we constitute a better mark for the artillery of the enemy, and so at last we are in the trenches and in the war. If the truth be told, among many sensations I think that the feeling that was uppermost with me at the moment was one of pride and gratification that at last I had reached the summit of a soldier’s ambition – that now I was in the greatest war of all time, and that it could never be said of me that I merely played at being a soldier, strutted about in uniform, and asked for recruits to fight and face danger but never thought of doing so myself.
- "ALL-BRITISH" LINE.
Our guide was a kilted Scotsman – a most intelligent fellow, who was in Valparaiso when the war broke out, but left a good appointment to come and do his little bit; a standing reproach to all slackers. It is no easy task bringing a platoon or company along a communication trench about a mile in length. Fortunately it was well laid with gangways, otherwise our slow progress would have been much slower and more difficult. During a few brief halts we witnessed some lively work above us. Three or four British aeroplanes were up, and the German anti-aircraft and other guns made plenty of practice at them, but without going near enough to do any damage.
After a journey of almost an hour and a half we came to what is known as the “all-British line”, where we taken in hands by a fresh body of guides, who brought us to the companies with whom we were to gain our first experience of warfare. These belonged to a famous Scottish regiment which made a glorious name for itself in the advances of September and October last.
I was taken in hand by a young lieutenant, who introduced me to his company dug-out. Meanwhile, a platoon of my company was attached to a whole company of the London Scottish. The Captain with whom I was to acquire the routine of trench duties was in the firing trench “taking over” from the company then holding that line. He was checking stores, etc., making himself acquainted with whatever work of improvement was in hand, being informed of enemy activities, and the locality of particular danger spots, and on what points the German snipers were most active.
- A NARROW SHAVE.
Eventually, when it was quite dark, word came that everything was in order and that the men were prepared to move. We were pretty heavily loaded with equipment similar to the men, and as the captain and I were in the centre of our companies we found it impossible to squeeze along to the head of the line. There was nothing for it but to get over the parapet and walk along in front until we got to the head of our companies.
Some German flares went up, lighting up the country, and in a few seconds a machine gun was trained on us and bullets began to whizz round our ears. It was decidedly unpleasant , and being the first time I was actually under fire I must confess my feelings were far from agreeable. But even the worst period of tension must some time come to an end, and it was with a sigh of positive relief that I got the order to jump in over the parapet again. We had got to the head of our company and were in a position to lead them in.
Just as we got down into the trench earth from the parapet on our front was sent flying over my head and shoulders. A few bullets had struck there, and I had escaped them by a second. I thought myself lucky at the time, and so I was, but further experience has shown me that the number of escapes a man may have out here and still live are marvellous, when they are not miraculous.