Little details of war

This is the fascinating account written by Sydney Spencer in hospital recovering from shell shock of his experiences at the front line in August 1918.

I have read many a glowing account of deeds & doings up there when men know each other as they are. Not one of these accounts gives for me at any rate, more than a very sketchy idea of the innumerable happenings which may take place in a few days. War is made up, so far as I have seen in my short experience, of little details done, undone, to be done, or to be undone, and unless these things are truly & patiently portrayed, the great with the little, the brave with the craven, then for those who yearn to know how things really happen there is little hope of arriving at an understanding of the atmosphere which surrounds warfare.

Before going any further, do not for one moment mistake me. I am not the old war worn man who has been out there for 3 years or more. My service out here is still in its babyhood. All I wish to do is to set down here as much in detail as possible the happenings of some eight days ending for me in the morning of August 10th, in the hope that should my ain folk ever read this, they may enter a little into what we do out here. Let the papers speak for themselves of vast movements, of cavalry, tanks, army corps, air fights, massings of troops, forward or retrograde movements, strategy & tactics. I mean to talk about much more humble things. How to get men’s socks changed. How to get shovels with which to dig in, under fire when no shovels are obtainable, how to carry the burden of 11 Lewis Gunners, when you only have four gunners left. How to walk that last kilometre when men are almost asleep as they walk. How to buoy men up when they are down. How to sympathize & yet be firm. How to be grim with the craven, & gentle with the exhausted ones.

I want to get away from the newspapers’ broad sweeping view of things & come down to little things, nay, at times to talk of a yard or two of ground or an individual man. The yard or two of ground will not be one necessarily where deeds were done, the individual will not be a budding VC.

And so let us get away & follow these 8 days through. We had had a day’s rest at [censored], after coming up from down south, & then at an early hour of the 1st, Dillon had orders to reconnoitre line in front of [censored], & I was to go with him.

A London omnibus awaited us and after a tedious journey of some 20 kilos, aggravated by heat & the continual danger of being decapitated by overhead wires, or bastinadoed by vicious elm branches, we arrived at our destination about a mile and a half away from our-to-be Brigade Headquarters. We walked there arriving in a sweltering mass, vainly trying to shew intense interest in J.16 veer 90.80 or K6 ac 7.5, on maps whose dazzling whiteness in the sunlight made gridlines & conmtour lines, coordinates & streams all swim into one. After a long confab during which companies gradually got themselves sorted out on the map, with the usual story of A on the left, B on the right, C from so & so to so & so, & so D in Bn reserve along grid line to such & such road exclusive, &c &c. Then we scattered our several ways, our officers wearily trailing off through brilliant cornfields until finally we arrived at a village, desolate & broken, & rested on a bank opposite a church smashed out of recognition. Then on up a white sunken road until we came to a large chalk quarry where lesser lights hung round our future Bn HQ in the sweltering heat. While higher lights discussed defence schemes, routes, probabilities, or impossibilities, we the lesser lights spent our time ‘swatting’ odious horse flies & mosquitoes, longing for the time when that sleek Bn mess waiter would finally find enough glasses to give us the proffered & much desired drink. When the higher lights had settled themselves in to take over from the [-]th Bn [censored] Regiment, Dillon & I went off to our own company frontage to reconnoitre. Our frontage was a short one. A trench called T & a mile or more behind some half dry trenches & then in the village of [censored] was Company HQ. I reconnoitred T- trench while Dillon did the rest. I was to be OC ½ company in T- trench wth no. 5 & 6 platoons & Dilworth to help me. T trench on the left sunk into the swampy valley of the A, and the village of T was just behind us. On the right T trench rose onto a hillside. In front a long way off rose great smooth ridges basking in sunlight & the Germans were there somewhere & that is the only impression I got that morning, save for the swamp on my left. It looked lovely. Sensuous green grass, sedges, & scattered carelessly all around tall poplars & whispering willows. Beautiful, as nature made it, but ugly to me because I knew it had been & would be saturated with mustard gas & blue cross gas, when it would become a swamp of pestilence & death, & the whole scene lost its airy beauty & made one feel as one does after reading scenic descriptions by Edgar Allen Poe, or some of the beautiful but mournful descriptions of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Along a dusty road back behind the rear of our company frontage I found company HQ with dear fat old Dillon coatless & exhausted seated on a chair & drinking. Here after we had settled on anti-aircraft positions & other sundries we wandered back through the heat to the motor bus awaiting us along the road so well camouflaged with wire & rags on both sides & above. So we went back taking hours to do it to our village of rest. On the way back we saw 4 of our balloons set on fire & brought down in the space of 1 minute. When we got ‘home’, Dillon & I with one accord eat [sic] eggs & quaffed tea & slid into a stream & cooled ourselves. In the evening after dinner Dilworth brought in members of the RAF with whom he had been flying & made merry & so to bed.

Rumours of a move are ugly & their shape becomes more intensely ugly when rumours hath it that we move at an early hour. Before 9 am on the 2nd we were ready for a move, lock stock & barrel. We were to ‘embuss’ at 10.45. As a fitting accompaniment for the wearing of full packs on a hot day with the promise of a weary trek in busses & a trail at the end of the day, we opened the day with a long & steady deluge of rain. Burberrys & water proof sheets were donned & so we left. Where were the busses? Packs were wearing to the shoulders, ‘Trench stores’ poked into men’s ribs & roadside banks looked tempting, & no busses! The busses had had a long trail & were late, very late. We wore our packs & waited in the Turkish bath heat & drenching rain for 3 hours, moving a few yards at a time. Finally, at 1.30 we got into our busses & the long stretch of dusky grey vehicles, looking war-worn & weary, moved off along the white [sand?] of road avenues for mile after mile – a monument of Napoleon’s thought for his troops – & at the end of 4 ½ hours we got to a wood where we were dumped by the busses & bivouacked! Were we cheerless. Far from it. We did not certainly smile with that broad Daily Mirror smile – so annoyingly unreal & false – a photograph would not have impressed one with the idea that ‘our troops always smile’ as fond newspapers would have us believe. We were just patient & smiled or laughed as occasion gave us the opportunity. For this wood, drenched by a day’s rain, tramped into mire by other troops, was not inviting, & to put a fitting seal to the ‘Clerks’ performance, when we started away at dusk the heavens literally belched rain on us. And so we moved. Other battalions went before us, & through the dusk & veil of rain I watched small bands of grey move along the road in front, wind away through miniature valleys & so over the hill to the future. At last in the order of things my little band moved & was lost to those behind save for those human links in the chain called connecting files dropped from the column who keep our band in touch with another. So through the gathering darkness we marched 8 kilometres. Men were weary. Lewis Guns & 16 panniers of SA ammunition are burdens at any time, & at the end of 8 kilos make a man grumble in spite of himself, at times. At intervals I could hear, “What is he made of, does he think we can go on without a stop”. Steady in front, “Why don’t you run”. This levelled at me. And I dared not ‘steady in front’. I had to keep touch. But men are so reasonable if one is reasonable oneself. One tall freckled Lewis Gunner of No. 5 platoon murmured, & so I asked him whether he thought it reasonable for me to halt & rest, lose touch with those in front, & halt the remainder of the column behind us! He at once became the mainstay of the other men. Gruffly robust, he pretended to be, he was tired but he & the jolly lot could stick it. It wasn’t “the officer’s fault” etc. So we moved on, passing villages where one saw a large balloon at rest, stretching its huge belly over the ground filling a cottage garden & making the cottage Lilliputian in comparison. So in the dark we arrived at the end of the trek & with my half company in T trench, the rest of the company to its appointed place in trenches behind. I cannot give any name to our line. It was not support or reserve or local support. There were several lines in front of us, I suppose in the light of today’s knowledge it was an assembly trench – in other words a ‘stowing’ place for troops who were intended later to go over the top. Mud & smell were the predominant factors which loomed large & distinct through the darkness. But there were bivouacs. Into them I fairly hustled the men. They had to rest. For me at the moment, battle positions, fire stops, L Gun positions, dwindled into unimportance in comparison with the crying need for resting my men, & so when fire posts were formed & gas precautions explained & insisted on, the men rested. Then at the end of two hours, just up the hill on the right came the mournful moan of heavy shell fire with its crescendo & diminuendo & then its crash, followed by the mental question, “Was anyone hit”. Some men unnerved by weariness & the ignorance of their new trench were out of the bivys asking what was happening. Then away up the hill came the voice of Dilworth (my other officer), calling for stretcher bearers. They were near my bivouac, so out they were fetched while I went up the trench to see what had happened. A 5.9 had landed almost in the trench. One man was badly wounded in the legs, another in the arm. Trenches were narrow, mud slippery, only one stretcher, runners too exhausted with work to be guide to BHQ. So I took one man with the stretcher and guided the way to the BHQ across the open valley. Whether it was impatience on my part or a fact, I don’t know, but it seemed an interminable time before we got back with the stretcher for the second man. He was lying in his bivy unable to walk. We asked him to try, as we could not get the stretcher in the trench bottom. He tried & to an extent succeeded. Dilworth took him away. When he arrived at BHQ it was found that his legs & thigh had seven wounds. His left foot was smashed. He had tried to walk! Later in the night other heavy shells were fired with Blue cross gas shells intermingled. But no further casualties. At 3 am of the 3rd I sent in the usual ‘situation’ report & then tried to rest a little. But I was conscious in my half sleep of the innumerable little things which wanted doing, & so at 6 or soon after I went along the whole of my little dominion & was forced to pronounce it bad. Salvage everywhere, bivys ‘undercut’ – a forbidden thing, fire stops to be constructed, L Gun posts dry, trench stores to be checked, trenches reconstructed where the shells of the night before had broken them in, & then the mud & water! Sump holes had to be made somehow. Down on the left in the valley the water was green & stagnant, & men’s bivouacs were there too. Routine had to be arranged. Work possible & imperative arranged for. Water supply thought of, rations, hot tea, clean socks, fatigue parties arranged, men to be taught their location, names of trenches, villages, roads, & looming large in the mind, four facts.

One. We were under direct observation of the enemy, therefore the order “by day a minimum of movement”.
Two. The almost certain fatigue parties or working parties wanted by night to go & work elsewhere, so that my trenches could not be worked on.
Three. A knowledge, self evident in the early morning, that my men were utterly exhausted, & how could they be rested.
Four. A knowledge that no excuse would be found by higher quarters for work not done.
And so feeling rather like a worried Alice in Wonderland when asked what one & one & one & one etc came to, I settled into my bivy & wrote out a long list of items, so that I could look at them in the cold light of short curt sentences & think. Then came the CO with numbers of questions. Where was X on the map. How had I arranged this, that & the other. How many shovels & picks had I, were my SOS sockets all right, etc. Happily for me all his questions & others were down on my paper & I gave him the resume’ & he took notes of my wants. I pleaded for no working parties at night to give me a chance of cleaning up my trenches, & he said he would do what he could. Then came a short period of sitting down & sifting out the ‘must-be-dones’ from the ‘good-thing-if-it-could-be-dones’! & then I created an acting orderly sergeant, a Lance Corporal Keeble, a slow but conscientious man. I gave him sundry details for work. Ordered working parties to do a little cleaning up work in the trenches out of sight and arranged for a salvage party. I had already made a salvage dump & arranged for all salvage to be collected & dumped ready for the ration waggon to take them back at night.

Then came a little failure, comic & therefore a relief. Lance Corporal Keeble has only been out here a week or two.

My orders for him were “Four other ranks to collect all salvage & dump it by 2.30 pm each day”. Keeble noted it & asked no questions. At 2.45 I went to the dump expecting to see piles of equipment, old rifles, SA ammunition, old mess tins, knives, & the other ‘wreckage’ washed up on the shore of old trenches & left to successors to collect. All I found were two bags filled with paper, cigarette ends, bully beef tins & match stalks! And my salvage still scattered up the length of trench. Poor Keeble. Salvage dump to him meant a sort of dut bin & so he had made it into a dust bin. I explained to him gently that salvage was lost or waste war material that was collected, salved & made usable again, but I found it difficult to hide my amusement. Picture my undignified bags of waste paper & old tins, being carefully transferred to BHQ & then to the Divisional salvage dump. Had I not detected his mistake, there would have been ‘chits’ for me. ‘Please explain why etc etc’.

Here let me pause a minute. I am struggling hard to express on paper what I stated at the set out, a history of little things & doings, those little things & doings which make up a great part of warfare. I also want to create a vagueness as to what the date is when the day begins & when it ends, for in these days there are no four & twenty hours to put a measure & term to one week, it is just a running together of light & darkness with a vague remembrance of snatches of ½ hours rests dotted here & there. And then work is never definite & continuous. There may be a predominant work going on, but side issues run into it or out of it, it is a ‘motley-medley’ of wildly differing wants getting all the attention possible, scant though it may be.

So let us get on with the stretch of daylight with which we were concerned. By early evening each section had had its work laid out. It had taken a long time to arrange. In my Army Book (note book) I find the following:

Aug 3rd Work for sections
1. Ration Party found by No 5 Platoon
2. Post on Road found by No 5 Platoon
3. Salvage Party found by L Gunners of No 6 Platoon
4. Fire Steps to be made by No 6 Platoon
5. Water Party 12 midnight (8 men) No 6 Platoon
6. Tea fatigue 8.45 pm
7. Trench to be cleaned out by No 5 Platoon.

The above had to be carefully worked out as numbers available & state of men had to be considered. It was like a game of chess with a very human element of uncertainty thrown in.

This completed I rested a moment and gazed on the miniature marvel of organization (subalterns ARE conceited) – there is much more under that simple little list than appears! – & then came the chance of warfare. A ‘chit’ from the orderly room. Our platoon will work under the –s with ‘D’ Company tonight – details later. Voila Tableau. Start again. Things arranged themselves however & at 9 pm details of working party arrived. Panic in miniature. ½ an hour to go to – apparently – the other end of the map. 4/5 shovels 1/5 picks to be taken. Shovels did not go round. However, the party went. And then with No 6 platoon the work of the night continued. Rations were due to arrive at 11 pm. They arrived at 2 pm, precisely as the enemy gave us a little exhibition of shooting, by shell fire & gas. Consequence, the affairs of man went a little aglae. We got the rations, but the waggon did not wait for salvage, and a good job it didn’t, else it had been salvage too into the bargain. By three am of the 4th I was getting anxious. Dilworth & his platoon had not returned. So I sat and waited & wondered. They came back at 4, just before ‘stand to’. They had had a weary tramp and it was late when they arrived at their destination. Dilworth with his usual characteristic determined manner said that if they worked they would never get back before daylight, & bluntly refused to start. So his men rested about 10 minutes & finally got back to me as I said above just about daybreak. Had they remained & worked, they most certainly would have been caught by daylight & had to lie up until nightfall, without food or water. Hence he acted as I should have wished. I gave orders tor them to go to their bivouacs & rest. No 6 platoon only stood to. The 4th Aug was a day of more or less even work. No 6 platoon was assuming an appearance of orderliness which was distinctly pleasing. No 5 however, having been out on working party & needing a rest afterwards, had had no opportunity of digging out the trench where uit had fallen in & the trench was not clean. This fact, and one or two others, filled my mind. Early in the day I had had an intimation that a platoon would be needed for work again in the evening. Later in the day this was cancelled, & Dilworth seated in my bivouac murmured that it meant we were off to the line. Nevertheless in the evening work went on as though we were going to remain in – trench for the remainder of the war.

At tea time a lance corporal came to me with a badly blistered foot. This was worrying so that we had an exhaustive foot inspection, at the determination of which it was found that despite orders, some men who thought they knew better than others, had only one pair of socks with them, and in consequence had not given in socks to be changed for clean ones. Result I had to doctor the feet of about a dozen men with blisters. Now comes a long lament about tea and water supplies, which like an insistent ‘bourdon’ note boomed away until it became predominant & had to be settled. Hence the following letter to BHQ which promptly settled things.

From OC ½ Company B Company
Ref water & tea supply arrangements in – Trench, I would beg to point out the following:
1. Tea if punctual should arrive in – Trench at 3.15 am and 9.15 pm.
2. Water from village is drinkable if chlorinated or boiled, otherwise it can only be used for washing.
Ref 1, Platoon or working party at night must start out at 8.50 to be punctual. So that the 9.15 tea supply is of no use to them. These men therefore will be getting one supply of hot tea only, the 3.15 am supply. This does not seem adequate.
Ref 2, I have no means of boiling water from village for men’s drinking purposes, I have asked OC my company whether chloride of lime is available. Reply to this cannot reach me yet as runner has not yet returned. I do not think that company HQ has any chloride of lime questions & asked the pioneers this morning. The Battalion Sergeant Major will supply me with 4 petrol cans of drinking water nightly after midnight.
Result, at present I have no drinking water for men. No means of boiling water from the village. Tea for platoons on working party is not available at the time needed.
This matter is becoming urgent. May I please be advised.
Sydney Spencer.

Since writing above, company runner has returned. Company HQ has no chloride of lime for purifying water.

The above may have nothing of interest in it, in itself, bit it is creating its own atmosphere. Purposes, no matter how well intended, will be crossed, and a medley of unfortunate arrangements such as the above will suddenly leap up & confront you, & it is by no means bad arrangements which create these domestic dilemmas of warfare. The work of the night went as smoothly as the work of the night before had been worrying. As both platoons were in & the trenches were drying up nicely, I had LG Posts made by Cpl Bailey, broken trenches reconstructed, & fire steps constructed, & then let the men rest. Dilworth was a great help to me & hounded me into my bivy to rest, but I in secret & with a candle wrote out a chit for BHQ, shewing what would be my dispositions in the case of heavy bombardment by gas shell. This problem which might have been very difficult was made easy by the trench in my area on the hill slope. Roughly my intentions were to move from the valley up the hill side above where a gas belt unless of great dimensions could reach, leaving a Lewis Gun post in the valley trench as garrison, this to be relieved at 2 hour intervals until gas effects dispersed. The tactical situation of the valley trench would not allow of the garrison evacuating it entirely.
At stand to, 5th, mists were heavy & it was long after the usual time when I could give the order to stand down. The day never cleared, but turned to periods of downright rain interspersed with pauses of ‘weeping’ mists. Uncomfortable but good for over the top work as I was able to make a sketch map of my disposition which had to be in to BHQ by 12 noon. This had only just been completed when the Brigadier came round the trenches. He was very pleased with Cpl Bailey’s L Gun post, which was then completely dug & had meant a lot of labour. The Brigade Major suggested that it needed camouflage (by use of chicken wire & rags, the usual thing). I got a promise of some out of BHQ. Then came the definite news. We were to go up to the front line & take over from the -. Dilworth spent the morning reconnoitring the support positions, which I & he had to take over.

Here I will make a break for a moment. I fear that all this may sound egotistical. All through I am thinking of the men & what they did, but have only been able to hint at their part, through orders given by me & work as detailed. After getting into the trenches & having a rest, I was determined they should feel that rest was to be rest & work work. The consequence was that they came up to scratch splendidly. I felt proud of their work, & of their endurance. (Tea at 3.30 am & 9.30 at night on a hot day makes for grumbling & there was very little!) It was great to feel a personal interest growing in each man – with few exceptions – for his task, & the work of the night 4th-5th was splendid. I have not written much of the innumerable ‘returns’ & ‘chits’ which had to send to the Battalion orderly Room. If Thomas a Kempis of gentle fame had written on this he would have headed his chapter

Of Intelligence – of Wind – of situation – of socks – of dispositions – of casualties – of trench stores & sundry other matters!

This next chapter – if chapter it can be called for work & preparations all run too closely together to be separated into chapters & periods – deals with preparations for our move in the evening.
First of all then, hot foot on the Brigadier’s visit came Bradley from C company to take over. This done, I could do nothing but wait. It poured in torrents by now & we were all getting steadily soaked through. The afternoon wore on. Orders came through that ten water etc would be fetched at the usual time! Petrol cans had to be returned to the BHQ, a bag of socks had to be fetched back, etc. But no orders for the move. At last I got to impatient to wait longer & fled to BHQ where I found out that I should be required to move at 9.30 pm to be on – Road by 9.45 pm. Momentary mental collapse on my part. How to get ready for move by 9.15 pm & yet get tea for men which would be ready half a mile away at 9 pm. How to get petrol cans back & socks distributed. Picks & shovels had to be collected. Trench stores handed over. Platoons prepared to move as soon as they had had their tea etc. I gave orders, the men acted up well to them & at 9.30 I was on such & such a road. Wet, hot, weary, but feeling very doggy, as I had not hoped for a moment to get through in the time.
On the road I had a contretemps which was very useful. We had to carry bundles of 200 yards barbed wire & pickets. A man of mine slipped in the mud, fell & cut his hand slightly. I had a very small opinion of the fuss he made, but reported to the adjutant, that I thought it a physical impossibility for the men to get the wire up the line, & the CO cancelled the order. Great joy in the camp of No 6 & No 5 platoons. So off we went through the darkness & mud & rain to our new home. The men arrived there safely & Dilworth & I set out to detail posts & battle positions for the men. Whether it was relief of mind that I had accomplished my job & handed over my command of a half company & once more become platoon commander, or whether I was tired out, I don’t know. be it as it may, I could work up no interest in posts or battle positions for the moment, & Dilworth seeing this took on the job for me & I went to Company HQ & saw Dillon whom I had not seen for 3 days. I rested & snoozed for about 2 hours & ten went on trench duty & saw our front line for the first time. As daylight approached I saw that our line, though simply a line with a curve in the middle, ran down from its left end into a deep & narrow valley then up a steep hillside to where our right touched the –s. Posts were well apart owing to the fact that our front was a long one. As dawn approached, the whine, whizz, whine of enemy shells started, grew, subsided & grew again in intensity. Then someone whispered that they had seen an SOS rocket go up. I was on the right & saw nothing. By the time I had got back to the junction of our CT with the front line, SOSs were going up all along the front of the people on our right. A sergeant said he had seen enemy. I did not at first see them. At last I saw a shadowy line away on the hill brows & then another and another until finally through my field glasses I saw the orderly movement of wave upon wave approaching the trenches on our right, disappear & appear again behind us. Five waves in all came over & seemed to melt into the support lines behind & then mystery. What had happened it was difficult to say. I raced backwards & forwards between CHQ & the front lines, keeping Dillon informed of what was happening. Then we got into touch with the –s. Yes, the enemy had broken into a little piece of trench & were trying to consolidate. How far through they had gone it was difficult to say. It remained a mystery. However it meant a lot of work for us. We had to be prepared for right flank defensive work. Dillon sent me with the NCOs of No 6 & % platoon to reconnoitre trenches for this work. They turned out to be very shallow & narrow. Mere drains in which one could put one’s feet only. However positions had to be chosen & the morning saw this done. The rest of the day wore on in doing trench duties & keeping in touch with those on the right, & trying to find out what had happened. A few men during the day suffered from shell shock symptoms. The peculiar calm on our front with the intermittent vicious shoots on our line together with the exhaustion & fatigue of previous days was telling on one or two of the youngsters, & their nerves were a bit rocky. One or two men certainly had symptoms of shell shock. During the night I have just talked of, & this day, with the next day following, I saw little or nothing of my platoon. I don’t well remember the details of the whole of the day except that it had no period of rest in it. Our front line was about 300 yards long, the support lines the same length, & the CT about the same length too, so that there was a great deal of fatiguing walking to be done. Later in the day we heard that the enemy had been pushed out of our trench which was a relief for the moment.

War account of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/10)

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: