The Resiliency of Mr. Atkins
- UNFAILING GOOD HUMOUR IN THE TRENCHES
There appears to be an idea prevalent in foreign countries that the Brition is a stolid and phlegmatic person, without imagination or humour, and indeed, something of this seems to have passed into the current literature of the homeland. However true this may be of the average Englishman in his ordinary life, it bears no relation in the world to him as represented by Private Thomas Atkins. Whether it is that the donning of the khaki uniform creates a mental metamorphosis I do not know, but the fact undoubtedly is that our men at the front have established a reputation for a humour all their own, and for that quality of “no downheartedness” which carries them cheerily through innumerable “scraps” and “pushes” and through the very real tests and terrors of daily life in the trenches. It is just this capacity for seeing the brighter side of things that makes life in the trenches tolerable.
- SHELL - SHOCK
We have at this time of year, of course, to endure the rigours of the cold weather. Our nerves get rattled pretty considerably, and fatigue and exhaustion through want of proper sleep are common enough. But it is wonderful when one gets to back billets how soon all these are forgotten. The resilience of the British soldier is remarkable. It is not a power of recuperation so much as a faculty for forgetting the hardships and perils of a few days ago, and springing, as it were, back to the normal again.
What struck me as most difficult to bear in the trenches is the appalling and continual noise and roar of artillery of every kind, and the dreadful concussion caused by high explosive shells. We never heard of Shell-shock before, but it is now a well defined condition, with its recognised symptoms and prescribed treatment. On the very first night he went in, one of the “subs” of my regiment was bowled over by it. A shell burst quite close to him. He got the impression that a splinter from it had struck him on the head. As a matter of fact it did not, but he was in such a state of pain owing to the delusion that he had to be treated as if he were actually wounded, and taken to hospital.
In the early morning, as a rule, you have not much “heavy stuff” shoved over on you. What you are watching for then are any signs of a desire on the part of the enemy to deliver an attack. Before dawn all officers and men are out and at their posts for “Stand to” in perfect readiness for Mister Hun in case he comes over. When the grey of dawn has merged into the full light of day the men stand down, with the exception of the sentries who calmly sit on the fire-steps and observe their front with the aid of periscopes. Tommy then sets about lighting a fire, and so carefully does he do it that no great volume of smoke goes up from the braziers to give his position away, otherwise a trench mortar may come across without warning to upset his breakfast arrangements.
- THE SAVOURY RASHER
I may mention that before “Stand to” we issue the ration of rum, and no matter what teetotal faddists or others may say, it is always looked forward to by the men. Moderate as the ration is, it undoubtedly stimulates a wholesome warmth at a time when it is sorely needed.
But what the men like most is their breakfast, when they have a good strong brew of tea (boiling hot), sufficient bread and butter, and often an excellent and savoury rasher of bacon. A good thick slice of bread is frequently fried with the rasher, and very appetising and nourishing it is. After breakfast the trench boards are taken up and cleaned, the fire-steps, where the men have been resting, tidied up, and all waste put into rubbish bags to be buried at the back of the trenches by the sanitary squad when it gets dark. Another bag is hung up on each fire-bay for empty cartridge-cases and clips. This salvage work , if consciously carried out, means a substantial saving to the taxpayer at the end of a year.
Meanwhile the company commander has arranged his scheme of work for the day, based on what is actually needed by way of repairs and improvements in his line. This is circulated among the platoon commanders, and fatigue parties are detailed accordingly.
About eleven o’clock a pretty stiff bombardment begins and lasts for several hours. I saw this described afterwards in the official report as “a rather lively artillery engagement.” No doubt, viewed in the light of what is taking place at Verdun, this would be about the correct comparative description of it, but if you find shells dropping continuously for six or seven hours at any distance between five and forty yards from your dugout, and if you have to do some tours of duty around the trenches while they are coming over, you are inclined to consider it as lively an affair as you want.