Excerpt from "Into The Jaws of Death"

by Private Jack O'Brien

A Narrative History of The Battalion
From The Letters of Edgar Robert "Bob" Goddard

Part 2

We reached there safely and some of our officers and N.C.0.'s went on up to the lines to see what kind of a place we were going into. They found that we would be on the left flank of the attack, and although the Germans had blown most of the front line to pieces, they had not attempted to advance here. That night two companies, A and B, were sent on ahead of the rest of us, and they went as near the lines as they could in motorbuses, then they took over what was left of the front lines, consisting mostly of shell holes. The rest of us were marched through Ypres, and we found it a mass of ruins. It was here that we saw the affects of war-dirty, horrible, stinking war. Hundreds of people were buried when Ypres was bombarded, and the stench of the place was unbearable. We followed the railroad for a piece and we passed some shell holes made by the "Fat Berthas" used by the Germans at the beginning of the war. You could bury an ordinary-sized house in any one of these holes. Dead horses were lying everywhere, showing that the road we were on had been shelled earlier in the evening. We didn't know what minute they would open up again, so we hurried over every crossroad. Fritzie had a mania for shelling crossing roads, and those in the Ypres salient are all named appropriately. Here are a few: "Shrapnel Corner," "Hellfire Corner," "Hell Blast Corner." We were marching in single file by this time, and every man carried a sandbag, bomb, rifle and bayonet, rations and a bottle of water. Some load, eh? Judging from the flares going up all around us, we seemed to be going into a pocket. On our right, the machine guns were going all the time, and they sounded like a thousand riveting machines, only instead of construction their noise meant destruction. Pretty soon we came to a big barrier of sandbags known as "China Wall," and here dead men were lying everywhere, and we couldn't help stumbling over them on our way in. At last we came to the communicating trench, and just as we reached it Fritzie sent a salvo of shells across-one or two of the boys caught it-the rest of us kept on our way. We followed the trench, scrambling over parts that were blown in, and stumbling over the dead that were lying everywhere. Finally we came to the trench that we were going to take over, and we relieved what was left of the Royal Canadian Rifles. They were an awful sight, dirty and bloodstained-many were shaking as though with a palsy-their nerves literally torn to pieces by the shell fire. But they had no word of complaint. "All right, boys, it's quiet. All's over now," was their greeting, but what they said didn't sound exactly true, for we had not been in five minutes, when with a roar all of Fritzie's guns opened up once more. Bullets swept over us like hail; it was hell let loose. The officer in charge was killed almost at once, and Major G took over the command. I sat in a bay with Sammy, Emerson, and Sergeant-Major Banks; the other boys were farther along the trench. I had never seen anything like what we were getting; machine guns were enfilading our trench - just at my feet was an old empty water can, and the bullets going in sounded as though some one was playing a drum. They couldn't hit me, because I was behind a traverse, or jog in the trench. After a while it quieted down a little, but it didn't entirely stop, and next morning, just at dawn, it started again, and I hope that I shall never be called on to go through what I did that day. But if I lived to be a hundred I could never forget it. Our trench was literally blown to pieces, and we couldn't do a thing but sit there and curse our gunners for not firing back-no doubt they were doing all they could, but the terrific noise of bursting shells all around us drowned the sound of our own artillery, and we fancied that we were not being supported. Wounded men were crawling along the trench looking for a spot that would offer comparative safety, and the rest of us were sitting in a daze. I was suffering for a drink, and I had no water. I had started to make some tea, but a shell knocked a big chunk of dirt into the trench and it upset my canteen. I wouldn't ask any of the boys for water, for every one needed all they had, and we are supposed to look after our own. Finally I got desperate, for the smoke and gas from the bursting shells parches the throat, and I made a search through a dead man's pack. It wasn't pleasant work, but I found a tin of milk, and it was worth a million dollars to me then. I had just gotten my drink, when, all at once, the earth under my feet began to heave and I was thrown on my face. I scrambled up again, but the earth was rocking like a ship at sea. Finally it stopped, and we looked over to the front lines which were held by A and B companies, but all we could see was smoke, black smoke right up to the sky, and then we realized what had happened. Our front lines had been blown up with mines, and now all the artillery that had been playing on our front lines was lifted on to us, and our hell became worse than ever. Then the Germans came and we had our hands full. A machine gun battery in a strong point just ahead held out, and a trench mortar on our left supported us, and our few lads did the rest. We were using the Ross rifle, and we fired it till it jammed; then we grabbed some Lee-Enfields that had been left behind by the R.C.R.'s. Fritzie seemed doped, and he came forward carrying full kit and trench mats. They were evidently surprised to find any one alive, for when we began to fire they stared around stupidly. Then our fire caught him, and as he attempted to get through the gap in our front lines the portion of line that had not been mined swept him with their machine guns. All the time our boys were just being wiped out with shell fire. Little Henry Wright was hit in the knee and started to crawl out over the back of the trench. I grabbed him and brought him back and stuck him into a hole out of the way of flying splinters. "You won't leave me, will you, if you have to go back?" he cried. "Not on your life," said I. "But don't be afraid - Fritzie is not going to chase us out of here." Just then somebody came along and said that the Germans had broken through on our right. I looked at Sammy and said, "This back to back stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be, is it?" Sammy grinned and we went on firing, and an officer that came along told us that the report we heard was not true-our line still held.

Just then poor old Baldy was blown to pieces by a shell; he had thrown up his bomb-proof job and had come back to the battalion. Chappie was struck by a piece of that same shell, and he got it right through the lung. Oh, how he did suffer! We couldn't take him back to the dressing-station on account of the terrific shell fire, and be lay in a sheltered part of the trench slowly bleeding to death. We took turns in going to see him. "Tell my little girl that I died fighting," he said to Bink. His chum, Marriot, came rushing along - "Oh, deah boy, I'm so sorry you are hit - cheer up, old chap." He, like the rest of us, didn't know what to say. But old Chappie didn't "go west" after all. He was ill for a long time, but was finally invalided home to Canada. While we were worrying over old Chappie a call came for volunteers to dig out some men that had been buried. McLeod and I grabbed shovels, and away we went in the direction pointed out. There was smoke everywhere and shells were continually coming. We went down the trench for quite a distance, and, turning a corner, what a sight met our eyes! There, sitting around on the firing-step of a bay, were nine of our boys, dead. The shell must have burst just above them, for they were full of holes, and their clothes were on fire. I turned to Mac: "Nothing for us to do here, old boy," and we started back. Just then I stumbled over something, and looking down, I saw that it was a body almost entirely buried in the dirt and wire netting. I scraped away some of the dirt and found that the man still breathed, so I got busy and tried to get him out. He was covered with the wire that is used to keep our trenches from caving in, and it was an awful job getting the wire and dirt off. We dug with our shovels, and tore at the wire until finally we got him extricated. We couldn't see a wound, but we thought it might be concussion, but when we lifted him up there was a hole in his back that I could put my fist in. Poor fellow, I saw that it was no use, but I threw some water in his face, and he opened his eyes, and tried to speak, and then quietly "went west." I went back to the boys feeling mighty blue, and their only greeting was, "Where in hell have you been? Don't you know your place is here?" but I just cursed back, and explained.

The Germans had stopped coming over by this time, but they still held portions of our front line. Out of the five hundred men who took over our portion of the front trenches, only one or two came out, and this is what they told us. They had been shelled for hours and their casualties were very heavy, as their only protection was shell holes. Then Fritzie started to come over, but they gathered in a bunch and bombed him back, and then the mines went up and that finished them. When Fritzie came over the few that were left were half buried and dazed, and had lost their rifles, so they were taken prisoners.

In the second line there were about a hundred of us left. Spud Murphy, our officer, fought till his arm was disabled, but we continued to hold the trench. Bink and Sammy took a. bunch of bombers and went up to the advance post; and that left our numbers still smaller. Just then Sergeant Faulkener came in from the strong point wounded in the shoulder. He had tried to keep it a secret, but loss of blood made him so weak that he had to give up. I spoke to him, and he said, "Ain't this hell? I get hit every little scrap I get into." He had been wounded down at Kemmil when Fritzie blew up the trenches there. "Honest John" we used to call him, and he was a good old scout.

The shell fire was still on just as bad as ever. Bob Richardson, our stretcher bearer, was working like a hero, the wounded lying all around him, and often the poor fellows were, hit again before he got through binding them up. A boy went past me with a bandage on his head. I said, "Hello, Jack, got a Blighty?" He said, "No, I'm afraid it's not bad enough for that." Poor fellow, he was shot through the eyes, and he didn't know that he would never see again.

That afternoon, in response to an urgent request for help, a company of men from the 29th came in. Towards evening the shelling died down a bit, and the wounded that could walk went out. Carrying parties arrived, and took out those who were badly wounded. Chappie was one of the first to go. That night the Sergeant came along and said, "Goddard and Wilson, go out on listening-post." We looked at the spot where he wanted us to go. Fritzie was landing shells there about one a minute, and there was absolutely no protection. I said "Say, Sergeant, that's suicide!" "I know," said he, but I have orders to put a post there." I said, "All right, but if I get killed I'll come back and haunt you." Well, over the top we went and we got to the place he had pointed out; we had barely lain down in a shell hole when whiz-bang! a shell landed just in front of us. It covered us with dirt, and we had hardly gotten the dust out of our eyes when whizbang! another landed just behind us. "Now," thinks I, "if one comes between those two, our name is mud." It wasn't more than a minute when we heard another coming, and this one landed in the part of the trench we had just left. Shrieks and groans went up, and Wilson and I lay there shaking like leaves. Just then, the Sergeant came out and told us to go back into the trench, and you bet we were glad to do it. We found that the last shell had killed three and wounded six, and no doubt we would have gotten one had we stayed. It's funny how things happen - our Sergeant-Major was badly wounded, and I helped to carry him to a place of comparative safety, but the poor fellow died after his wounds were dressed. We buried the dead as best we could, and then we hung on for two days more. We had no water and scarcely any food, and we suffered terribly, especially from thirst. Our ration parties were all killed trying to get food to us. Bink and some of the boys on the outpost were relieved first, and they brought us water. Poor lads, they had been sitting on an old culvert with water up to their waists. The only sleep we. got all this time was during the day when we lay in the mud at the bottom of the trench. We were relieved on the third night, and oh, what joy when the 29th came in and took over the trench! We were "all in," and we staggered back to Ypres throwing away everything we carried except our rifles.

When we got to Ypres, we found that we had to go back to where we had started from, so we struggled on. On the way we met a bunch of Lancashire men. "What do you belong to?" they asked us as they passed. "We are all that is left of a Canadian battalion," we replied. "Gorblimey, it's bleedin' orful," said they. Just as day was breaking we hit camp. The Quartermaster gave us a drink of rum, and the cooks had a feed ready, and we got our blankets and turned in. We slept till the afternoon, and then we had to answer a muster call. Two hundred and seventy-two was all that was left of what, three days before, had been a battalion one thousand strong. Tears rolled down our old Colonel's face as he looked at us. "My boys! my boys!" was all he could say. We were only out twenty-four hours, and during that time we read our mail, wrote a few letters, and opened our parcels. There were parcels everywhere, many of them belonging to boys who had been either killed or wounded, and these were distributed among those that remained.

We were dead-tired and we were hoping for a good long rest, when in marched a big bunch of reinforcements, and shortly after we received orders to pack up and be ready to move that night. It was raining when we started out, and oh! we did feel rotten to have to go back to that hell-hole again. But the new fellows didn't know what it was like, and we laughed and joked with them. Bob Tait and I were carrying No. 10's rations; and we were "connecting file" - that is, we kept in sight of the platoon behind. It was raining so hard that we were soon soaked to the skin, and we were glad when they stopped at Ypres that night. Bob and I missed the platoon in front; they went into some dugout, so we went in with the rear platoon. We were billeted in what had been an old wine cellar. The house which had been there before the war was blown down, and from the outside it looked like nothing but a pile of bricks. Bob and I were in a little place by ourselves; we knew that it was useless to try and find our own platoon in the dark. We had nothing but a stone slab, to sleep on, and it didn't look very inviting to stretch out there in our wet clothes. I was just preparing to lie down when Bob said, "Wait a minute, see what I found," and he held up a bottle of rum. Gee, I could have kissed him! - we had a good drink, and maybe we weren't glad that we carried the rations that night. We had a fine sleep in spite of the artillery thundering overhead. Every now and then a heavy German shell would land right on top of our sleeping-place, but it couldn't break through. The concussion would put out the candles, that was all. That night, the First Division of Canadians and some British troops made their big counterattack; and took back all the ground that the Germans had taken in the previous nine or ten days.

Continued


28th (North-west) Battalion Headquarters is © Copyright 2002 Robert Lindsay. All Rights Reserved