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At the Front in World War I

(From Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 1930, by Siegfried Sassoon, Part Eight, The Second Battalion.)

Waiting for rumours

The Battle of Arras began at 5.30 next morning. For two days we hung about the chateau, listening to the noise (of Military History being manufactured regardless of expense) and waiting for the latest rumours. With forced uneasy gaiety we talked loudly about the successes reported from the Line. ‘Our objectives gained at Neuville-Vitasse’, ‘five thousand prisoners taken’, and so on. But every one of us had something in his mind which he couldn’t utter, even to his best friend.

Meanwhile the weather was misbehaving itself badly. Snow showers passed by on a bitterly cold wind, and I began an intimate battle in which a chill on the intestines got the better of me. It wasn’t so easy to feel like a happy warrior turning his necessities to glorious gain, when doomed to go in company with gastritis, a sore throat, and several festering scratches on each hand. No more clean socks or handkerchiefs either.

A big mail came in on Tuesday — the first we’d had for a week — and this kept us quiet for an interval of flimsy consolation. My only letter was from Aunt Evelyn, who apologized as usual for having so little to say. She had been reading The Life of Disraeli — ‘such a relief to get away from all these present-day horrors. What a wonderful man he was. Are you still in the Rest Camp? I do hope so.’

She added that spring-cleaning had been going on vigorously, with the usual floods of conversation from the maids… This didn’t help my gastritis, which was getting beyond a joke. The M.O. wasn’t back from leave yet, but one of his orderlies handed me an opium pill of such constipating omnipotence that my intestines were soon stabilized to a condition suitable for open warfare.

Slogging on

A heavy snowstorm set in soon after we started. A snowstorm on April 11th was the sort of thing that one expected in the War and it couldn’t be classed as a major misfortune. Nevertheless we could have done without it, since we were marching away from all comfort and safety; greatcoats had been left behind and we had nothing but what we stood up in. As we slogged along narrow winding lanes the snow melted on the shiny waterproof sheets which kept the men uncomfortably warm.

We were now in the devastated area; villages had been levelled to heaps of bricks; fruit trees, and even pollard-willows, had been hacked down, and there was still a chance that we might be the victims of a booby trap in the shape of a dynamite charge under a causeway. A signpost pointed to Blairville; but a couple of inches of snow was enough to blot out Blairville. The next village was Ficheux (the men called it ‘Fish Hooks’ — any joke being better than none in that snowstorm); but Ficheux wasn’t there at all; it had vanished from the landscape.

The snow had stopped when, after marching eight miles, we bivouacked in the dregs if daylight by a sunken road near Mercatel, a place which offered no shelter except the humanity of its name. After dark I found my way into a small dug-out occupied by a Trench Mortar Sergeant-Major and two signallers who were working a field-telephone. I considered myself lucky to be there, crouching by a brazier, while the Sergeant-Major regaled us, in omniscient tones, with the rumours about the desperate fighting at Wancourt and Heninel, names which meant nothing to me. I dozed through the night without ever being unaware of the coke fumes from the brazier and the tick-tack of the telephone.

Theoretical glory

Daylight discovered us blear-eyed and (to abbreviate a contemporary phrase) ‘fed up and far from home’. We got through the morning somehow and I issued some of my ‘emergency Woodbines’. Rifle-cleaning and inspection was the only occupation possible. Early in the afternoon the Battalion moved on four miles to St. Martin-Cojeul. The snow had melted, leaving much mud which rain made worse.

St. Martin was a demolished village about a mile behind the battle-line. As we entered it I noticed an English soldier lying by the road with a horribly smashed head; soon such sights would be too frequent to attract attention, but this first one was perceptibly unpleasant. At the risk of being thought squeamish or even unsoldierly, I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be momentarily horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk, although people with sound common sense can always refute me by saying that life is full of gruesome sights and violent catastrophes.

But I am no believer in wild denunciations of the War; I am merely describing my own experiences of it; and in 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral. Anyhow, the man with his head bashed in had achieved theoretical glory by dying for his country in the Battle of Arras, and we who marched past him had an excellent chance of following his example.

Rabbit-hole life

B-Company Headquarters was a sort of rabbit-hole, just wide enough to accommodate Leake, a tiny stove, and myself. Leake occupied himself in enlarging it with a rusty entrenching tool. When dusk was falling I went out to the underground dressing-station to get my festering fingers attended to. I felt an interloper, for the place was crowded with groaning wounded.

As I made my way back to the trench a few shells exploded among the ruinous remains of brickwork. All this, I thought, is disgustingly unpleasant, abut it doesn’t really count as war experience. I knew that if I could get the better of my physical discomforts I should find the War intensely interesting. B-Company hadn’t arrived at the groaning stage yet; in fact, they were grimly cheerful, though they’d only had one meal that day and the next was tomorrow morning.

Leake and I had one small slice of ration bacon between us; I was frizzling my fragment when it fell off the fork and disappeared into the stove. Regardless of my unfortunate fingers I retrieved and ate it with great relish. The night was cold and sleep impossible, since there was no space to lie down in. Leake, however, had a talent for falling asleep in any position. Chiselling away at the walls by candlelight, I kept myself warm, and in a couple of hours I had scooped out sufficient space for the other two officers.

Officers & gentlemen

Rees and Shirley were a well contrasted pair. Rees was a garrulous and excitable little Welshman; it would be flattery to call him anything except uncouth, and he made no pretensions to being ‘a gentleman’. But he was good-natured and moderately efficient. Shirley, on the other hand, had been educated at Winchester, and the War had interrupted his first year at Oxford. He was a delicate-featured and fastidious young man, an only child, and heir to a comfortable estate in Flintshire.

Rees rather got on our nerves with his table manners, and Shirley deprecated the way he licked his thumb when dealing the cards for their games of nap. But social incompatibilities were now merged in communal discomfort. Both of them were new to the Line, so I felt that I ought to look after them, if possible.

I noticed that Rees kept his courage up by talking incessantly and making jokes about the battle; while Shirley, true to the traditions of his class, simulated nonchalance, discussing with Leake (also an Oxford man) the comparative merits of Magdalen and Christ Church, or Balliol and New College. But he couldn’t get the nonchalance into his eyes… Both Shirley and Rees were killed before autumn.

Unpleasant sights

There was another attack next morning. Rees was detailed for an ammunition-carrying party, and he returned noisier than ever. It had been his first experience of shell-fire… Later in the day I took Shirley for a walk up the hill; I wanted to educate him in unpleasant sights. The wind had dropped and the sunset sky was mountainous with calm clouds. We inspected a tank which had got stuck in the mud while crossing a wide trench. We succeeded in finding this ungainly monster interesting.

Higher up the hill the open ground was dotted with British dead. It was an unexpectedly tidy scene, since most of them had been killed by machine-gun fire. Stretcher-bearers had been identifying the bodies and had arranged them in happy warrior attitudes, hands crossed and heads pillowed on haversacks. Often the contents of a man’s haversack were scattered around him. There were letters lying about; the pathos of those last letters from home was obvious enough.

It was a queer thing, I thought, that I should be taking a young Oxford man for this conducted tour of a battlefield on a fine April evening. Here we were, walking about in a sort of visible fraction of the Roll of Honour, and my pupil was doing his best to behave as if it were all quite ordinary and part of the public-school tradition. He was being politely introduced to the horrors of war, and he made no comment on them.

Earlier in the day an attack on Fontaine-les-Croiselles had fizzled out in failure. Except for the intermittent chatter of machine-guns, the country ahead of us was quiet. Then, somewhere beyond the ridge, a huge explosion sent up a shapeless tower of yellow vapour. I remarked sagely that a German dump had probably been blown up. Shirley watched it intently as though the experience would be of use to him during future operations.

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